Evangelicals and the Prosperity Gospel

Andrew Sullivan is right.

I thought my hand would wither when I wrote this, but I must confess he is right.

There has been a spate of interesting stories in the last week about the prosperity gospel. The Guardian has a nice piece on the indictment on fraud charges by Brazilian prosecutors of the king of the prosperity gospel preachers, Bishop Edir Macedor. And writing in The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish column discusses the existential mindset of the Republican Party. He offers his readers the ‘prosperity gospel’ as one explanation for its militant mood.

But let us first define our terms. What is the prosperity gospel?

In a 2006 Time Magazine piece entitled “Does God want you to be rich?”, David Van Biema and Jeff Chu offered an overview of the movement whose headliners include Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer and Paul and Jan Crouch.

For several decades, a philosophy has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves.

In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke. Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

In his piece entitled, “Republicanism as Religion“, Sullivan draws upon a web essay written by Mike Lofgren to argue the prosperity gospel movement controls the Republican Party:

..the GOP, deep down, is behaving as a religious movement, not as a political party, and a radical religious movement at that. Lofgren sees the “Prosperity Gospel” as a divine blessing for personal enrichment and minimal taxation (yes, that kind of Gospel is compatible with Rand, just not compatible with the actual Gospels)..

The essay continues with a political analysis of the GOP arguing that this new “religion has replaced all” of its prior beliefs, “reordered it, and imbued the entire political-economic-religious package with zeal. And the zealous never compromise.”

He closes with a warning that if the Republicans “defeat” Obama in 2012, this religious zealotry will lead to blood in the streets.

I fear we will no longer be participating in a civil conversation, however fraught, but in a civil war.

There has always been a épater le bourgeois quality to Sullivan’s work, and I do not find his political explanations persuasive. Nor will his description of the prosperity gospel as “idiotic” win him friends and influence people among the ranks of its devotees. But he is right to speak of the importance of this new gospel amongst Christians. From its American roots it has spread across the globe and is a powerful religious and social force in South America, Africa and South Korea.

The Christian Left and the Religious Right have largely rejected the movement. Scott Paeth of DePaul University called it a “truly mind-boggling perversion of the message of the Gospel, and in fact turns the entire notion of Christian love on its head. Whereas Augustine said that the essence of sin was the human person turned in upon him or herself, Osteen’s version of Christianity is all about turning inward on ourselves.”

For Evangelical theologian John Piper the movement is heretical. It is “another gospel”, not the Christian one.

Andrew Sullivan’s instincts are right, but he applies his analyses to the wrong field of study. Prosperity gospel practitioners like Osteen are relentlessly apolitical and avoid the hot button issues of the day. Simply put, its bad for their business.

Reporting on this phenomena has seen mixed results. This ABC news video  is an example of the trepidation many reporters have when approaching the subject. Or, the ABC team may just be woefully ignorant of the topic they are seeking to address. ABC mentioned criticisms of the movement, but tossed Osteen a softball when asking him to respond or explain his work.

Oh, by the way, Osteen has a new book out: “Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week.” This cringe inducing news story comes across as a six minute commercial for Osteen’s book, not a serious look at his church or this world-wide phenomenon.

The Guardian does a much better job with the prosperity gospel’s appearance in the news. Two articles by the British daily’s Rio correspondent examines the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God headed by Bishop Edir Macedo. They also show a growing awareness that the prosperity gospel cannot be pigeonholed as another manifestation of the evangelical right.

Last week the Guardian’s Tom Phillips wrote an article entitled “Brazil charges church leaders with embezzling millions from poor.” He reported:

Three leading members of one of Brazil’s most powerful churches have been accused of laundering millions in church donations and using worshippers’ money for personal gain.

The charges, unveiled on Monday by São Paulo’s public prosecutor, relate to 404m reals (£150m) allegedly obtained from mostly impoverished churchgoers by leaders at Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. ..the prosecutor behind the case, claimed followers were tricked into handing over money to the church through “false promises and threats that spiritual and economic assistance would only be bestowed upon those who made financial sacrifices for the church”.

Prosecutors claim that although the church claimed to have received around £1.85bn in donations between 2003 and 2006, the actual sum could be much higher.

The article gives a summary of the church’s teachings in a neutral tone, offers Macedo a word of response, and refers to a 2009 story by Phillips that reported on claims that donations were used to buy luxury goods and property. Being the Guardian, a cynic might have expected this statement:

The church’s preachers are also notorious for their open hostility towards Brazil’s gay community and African-Brazilian religions.

While I would have preferred this point to have been developed further to substantiate the claim, and would have questioned the “notorious” – “hostility” pairing, it is a fair statement. However, one can never tell how much a sub-editor has applied the scissors to a story and I am loathe to jump on omissions for that reason.

One difference between Phillips’ latest story, and his previous reporting on Macedo is the absence of the word “evangelical”. The lede sentence in his 2009 story begins with “the leader of one of Brazil’s largest evangelical churches” and also includes “evangelical” in the title. This latest story omits the word entirely. The move away from tagging prosperity gospel preachers as evangelicals can also be seen in the AP’s coverage of Macedo. While the AP’s English language story on this item includes the “evangelical” descriptor, its more detailed Spanish language story also omits the word from the body of its story.

Why does this matter? Because the prosperity gospel is not part of the evangelical movement nor does Macedo’s church claim to be evangelical. I applaud the increasing sophistication the Guardian and other quality papers have brought to reporting on this neo-Pentecostal movement. I hope others will soon catch on.

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Pat Robertson embraces modern morality

I know “Pat Robertson says something shocking” hasn’t been a man-bites-dog story in decades. But occasionally his comments are interesting enough to warrant media attention. Or, as Religion News Service put it yesterday:

Televangelist Pat Robertson can always be counted on for some nutty-but-quotable (alas) comment on a natural disaster and God’s wrath and gays, or some combo thereof.

But his remarks on Tuesday’s edition of “The 700 Club” are really eye-popping.

I first read the remarks in question at Christianity Today, when they reported the news that the media mogul had advised a viewer that Alzheimer’s is grounds for divorce (click here for the video). Here’s how they put it:

Pat Robertson advised a viewer of yesterday’s 700 Club to avoid putting a “guilt trip” on those who want to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s. During the show’s advice segment, a viewer asked Robertson how she should address a friend who was dating another woman “because his wife as he knows her is gone.” Robertson said he would not fault anyone for doing this. He then went further by saying it would be understandable to divorce a spouse with the disease.

“That is a terribly hard thing,” Robertson said. “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone. So, what he says basically is correct. But I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again. But to make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”

Yes. Such comments might not be shocking from advice givers who embrace relativism but even for the ever-quotable Robertson, they were bizarre.

Christianity Today concluded its report with a mention of Robertson McQuilkin, who ended his 22-year tenure as president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary to care full-time for his wife Muriel who suffered with Alzheimer’s for 25 years, the last decade of which she could not recognize her husband. He wrote an article where he explained that his decision to care for her was easy:

This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt,” McQuilkin wrote.

In an interview in 2004, McQuilkin said he made the right decision. “Some people sort of resent the imposition, but those thoughts never came to me,” McQuilkin said. “I thought it was a privilege to care for her. She had always cared for me. So it was not a burden. In fact, if it had been a burden, maybe there wouldn’t be so much grief now, that sense of loss.”

I generally share RNS’ resignation about whether to quote Robertson. But it’s good to see that this story wasn’t relegated to the Christian press. The Associated Press also covered it, with a brief report on the matter. I almost missed it the first time I read it, but it includes a brief explanation of why Christians tend to frown on divorce:

Most Christian denominations at least discourage divorce, citing Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark that equate divorce and remarriage with adultery.

It might be helpful to revisit some of the themes from our discussion we had last week on the Tennessean article on Christian marriage and the role of sacrifice in the same. Of course, volumes could be written and have been written about Christian views on divorce but, like I said, it’s a brief piece.

The article also gets some context from Beth Kallmyer, director of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association, which provides resources to sufferers and their families. She explains, in so many words, that most families of Alzheimer’s sufferers are not as callous as Mr. Robertson.

Christianity Today‘s mention of how a Christian man cared for his wife and the Associated Press mention of Scripture and practical family matters provide context without being snarky or rude (a feat I obviously have trouble with).

Perhaps this will just be added to the lengthy list of interesting or inflammatory things that Robertson has said over the years. It might also be a piece of a larger puzzle about Robertson’s views on morality or his own health. But the media seemed to do a fine job handling this one. What do you think?

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Pat Robertson and the (old) dominion wars

I’ve tried to stay out of the whole Dominionism thing in recent weeks, in large part because if you have read a fair share of church history you — literally — have heard it all before. The partisans simply work up new labels in each new round of combat.

Yes, there are some theocrats out there and then tend to clump into some very small and quite distinct groups. It should be noted that these groups rarely agree with one another, either on matters of theology or politics. The spirits that animate these quarrelsome folks are quite diverse (one might even say they are “legion”).

Take those “New Apostolic Reformation” folks who are supposed to be running the state of Texas, right now. Is it just me, or do they sound like the latest manifestation of the whole power prophecy stance that sweeps through some Pentecostal flocks every now and then?

Anyway, one passage in Lisa Miller’s recent commentary on the Dominionism scare — part of her work at the Washington Post “On Faith” site — stirred up some very old memories for me, memories from my “moderate” Southern Baptist past and my one close encounter with the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Here’s the passage that tweaked me:

Christian conservatives in America are not more militant than ever. Pat Robertson, a Christian minister, ran for president in 1988. Robertson was, actually, a dominionist. “There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world,” he wrote.

Now, I’m no expert on Robertson. I’ve never even met the man. However, based on my readings I do know that he has held a lot of beliefs at different points in time and many of them don’t mesh very well. Take that “rightful place of leadership at the top of the world” quote. Is he talking about an event at the end of time? Next week? After the next White House race? What?

Nevertheless, that reference to Robertson being a true blue dominionist — little “d,” or big “D” — reminded me an excellent article in Atlantic Monthly that I read long ago when I was wrestling with whether to join the faculty of Regent University (don’t ask). It was written by the great liberal Baptist Harvey (“The Secular City“) Cox of Harvard Divinity School.

The name of this long, but essential, article: “Warring Visions of the Religious Right.” It grew out of Cox’s experiences when he was invited to do a series of lectures on the Regent campus. While surprised at the invitation, he was even more surprised to arrive and discover (a) that the campus was home to intellectuals representing quite a few different theological and political perspectives and (b) that there was probably more true diversity there (in terms of disagreements on vital issues) than one would find in the Harvard faculty lounge.

Thus, the key word in his title is “warring.”

To his shock, Cox learned that quite a few Regent people were embracing the doctrine of “postmillennialism.” What’s that? Well, think of it as the opposite of the whole “Left Behind” thing.

Since the rise of fundamentalism, in the early years of the twentieth century, the favored eschatology among its adherents has been that Jesus Christ will actually return before the establishment of his millennial Kingdom, and in the meantime things will get progressively worse on earth. There will be wars and rumors of wars as we spiral downward. This is the so-called pre-millennial view, popularized in Hal Lindsey’s paperback broadside The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which has sold more than 12 million copies. In that book Lindsey analyzed the Cold War, the role of Israel, and the moral decline of America in the light of his own inventive reading of the Books of Daniel and Revelation, and announced that the final great battle of Armageddon was about to begin.

This somewhat overheated “living-in-the-last-days” mentality is, however, vociferously opposed by another school of conservative Christian eschatology, which is called postmillennialism. A considerably more upbeat view, it holds that through the faithfulness of individuals and the influence they bring to bear on societies, righteousness and justice will gradually spread and increase. Consequently, when Christ comes again, the earth will be prepared for his appearance. The postmillennial idea reigned virtually uncontested in American Protestantism from the time of Jonathan Edwards until the appearance of fundamentalism, around 1900. Since then the two parties have been feuding, but in the past decade the postmillennial view has staged a comeback. It is clearly dominant at Regent.

Pre-millennial and postmillennial eschatologies generate opposing visions of what believers should be doing in a fallen world.

You can say that again.

This sets the stage for the battle that was raging at Regent nearly two decades ago.

You guessed it. The title of this section of Cox’s article is, “The Dominion Controversy.” This is the context for Miller’s earlier Robertson quote.

… (Just) how are Christians to exert influence? This brings up what has undoubtedly been the most contentious issue at Regent. It has to do with something called “dominion theology.” A subset within postmillennial theology, the dominion school holds that Christians (and, some would add, religious Jews) have inherited all the Old Testament mandates, one of the most fundamental of which is in Genesis 1:28, where God says to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (emphasis added). Dominion theologians interpret this passage to mean that believers are entitled to “dominion” over all the world’s major institutions. They should rule the earth until Christ comes again, no matter what the duration of their interim reign. Some of Robertson’s critics believe that such a vision — an entire nation run at all levels by the faithful — is what inspired Robertson to rename his university “Regent,” and they find this frightening.

Their concerns, it would seem, are not entirely groundless. At times Robertson has written, in what gives a strong impression of being a dominion-theology voice, that Regent is to be a “Kingdom institution,” in which people will be taught how to “enter into the privilege they have as God’s representatives on earth.”

So who won this war? That’s the surprising twist. Cox discovers strong evidence that the dominionists lost the war at Regent and, to his surprise, Robertson even emerged as a “moderating influence” who was veering away from that stance.

Fascinating. Essential reading, for those who are actually interested in the roots of this latest mini-firestorm. If you want to do more than play spin the labels, this wise article from Cox is must reading.

So read it all.

IMAGES: On the the Regent University Divinity School; Dr. Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School.

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There goes the F-word LA Times, again

Let’s start with the obvious: There were more than a few believers who could accurately be described as “fundamentalists” at the Gov. Rick Parry’s combination prayer rally and pre-White House campaign trial balloon festival.

Let’s start with something just as obvious: There were plenty of people at the rally (simply based on the official list of those who signed on) who could not accurately be described as “fundamentalists” under the historic — and, thus, Associated Press Stylebook endorsed — definition of the term.

Thus, it is appropriate to ask what in the heckfire the editors of The Los Angeles Times were thinking when they approved this lede for their main hard-news report on this controversial event:

With Rick Perry likely to enter the Republican presidential race within days or weeks, thousands of fundamentalist Christians cheered the Texas governor Saturday at a stadium prayer rally that appeared to boost his standing with religious conservatives, a key GOP voting bloc.

Perry organized the daylong service of prayer and fasting, featuring appearances by prominent figures on the Christian right. Stadium officials said the crowd exceeded 30,000, far more than any event staged by the announced Republican presidential contenders.

I realize that most GetReligion readers who work in journalism almost certainly know the following passage by heart now, but let’s take another look at the AP stylebook’s wise and historically accurate advice on how to handle the term “fundamentalist.”

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

That stated, a glance at the official national endorsement list (a source tapped in few, if any, news reports) for this event reveals that some true fundamentalists were, in fact, in the house.

At the same time, there were evangelicals present — author Max Lucado leaps to mind — who could never be called a “fundamentalist.” Then again, perhaps the dominant stylistic influence on the event came from charismatic churches and, trust me, there are scores of important and divisive theological differences between Pentecostal believers and true fundamentalists. And what does one do with retired Bishop John Yanta of Texas, Sam Brownback and the few other Catholic leaders (clergy and laity) who dared to endorse the event?

The obvious question: Have we reached the point where any Christian believer whose doctrine of scripture and church tradition is high enough to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin will now be called a “fundamentalist”?

Let me stress that this rally included some fringe folks, for sure. However, instead of accurately quoting these beliefs and, even better, asking the mainstream evangelicals and Catholics to critique them, the Los Angeles Times led the way (correct me if I missed worse, providing URLs) in settling for multiple uses of foggy terms such as “extreme views” — instead of actually citing on-the-record references to those views.

At one point, there was this missed opportunity:

… Perry and other speakers were careful to avoid overt partisan appeals. To applause, the 61-year-old governor expressed his view of a “personal God” whose “agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda.” Chuckling, he added, “He is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party.”

Perry read several Bible verses, including from the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited as the inspiration for the rally.

Uh, “his view” of a “personal God”? The governor has his own view on that basic Christian belief about the nature of the Almighty? Please, Times crew, share the details. Perhaps this newspaper’s inner ring believes that Catholics, for example, do not believe in a “personal God”?

And about those Bible verses read by Perry. I, for one, would like to know what one or two of them were — in case he mangled any of them or used them out of context (Elizabeth Tenety of the “On Faith” site at The Washington Post has many of these details, as usual). The angels (and the demons) are in the details.

I am sure that some readers would question elements of The New York Times report on the event, but at least these editors avoided yet another inaccurate use of the F-word in their short report. This is strong praise, in these times.

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Crystal Cathedral’s Latino revival?

I feel like I just commented on a Los Angeles Times story about Crystal Cathedral. Oh, that’s right. I did.

Here now comes something a little different. Call it the silver-lining-in-the-crystal-cloud-in-bankruptcy-court story. The LAT reports:

As the Crystal Cathedral fights to survive its descent into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this is its untold success story: a Spanish-language service led by a dynamic Argentine pastor, Dante Gebel, who inspires comparisons to the church’s founder, Robert H. Schuller.

Since Gebel arrived two years ago, the cathedral’s Hispanic Ministry has grown from no more than 300 people to 3,000, far outstripping the traditional ministry led by Schuller’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman. The brash, shaggy-haired Gebel is seen on television in some 70 countries; his Facebook page is “liked” by more than 800,000 people.

The really interesting part of this article comes next. Reporters Mitchell Landsberg and Nicole Santa Cruz speculate that Gebel’s soaring popularity probably won’t save the Crystal Cathedral. What’s so interesting, though, is that Gebel doesn’t really seem to care. He comes off in the story as a gun for hire.

“I haven’t been called to save the Crystal Cathedral, so that isn’t my goal,” he said in an interview in his office on the cathedral grounds. He thinks about just one thing, he said: “Preaching to the Hispanic people.”

He likens the cathedral, with its soaring, light-filled vault, to a borrowed tuxedo. “I would say the same thing here as in Bolivia or Argentina,” he said, “but here, I have a better suit.”

To me, this image is a lot more compelling and worth probing than any recitation of the difference between English- and Spanish-language services at a single church. It’s old news that American churches, even if not especially the most-famous megachurches, have mixed identities across what can be a bifurcated congregation.

What is best about Landsberg and Santa Cruz’s article is that while they discuss the differences between Crystal Cathedral and Catedral Cristal, they do so by framing the differences within the personalities of the separate communities and their pastors.

The tension in this story is heightened nicely by the ongoing — and likely fatal — struggles of the English-language Crystal Cathedral service and the original worship space.

(As an aside, though, I wonder if “groused,” as used here — “If I wanted to hear rock ‘n’ roll, I’d go to a nightclub,” groused a retired airline pilot one recent Sunday.” — was an appropriate word choice. I like it, but I think it works best of this retired pilot was a real curmudgeon and not just unhappy.)

And the reporters do a great job showing, not just telling the reader, the ways in which the Spanish-language service is thriving and the ways in which the English service has gone cold.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, who has taken over for her father, figures heavily in this story. And she is quoted as saying her heart if for the needy and that her church needs to change to remain relevant, but without giving specifics about how. One voice generally missing, though, is Gebel’s.

Gebel is cited briefly in describing where he came from. But it seemed that the reporters missed an opportunity to do more of a mini-profile of this charismatic preacher who has stirred something in the Garden Grove, Calif., Latino community.

I also found this passage bizarre:

One recent service featured a guest appearance by self-proclaimed prophet and faith healer Cindy Jacobs, who purported to cure ailments that included deafness, depression and infertility. Her brand of fundamentalism once would have been unlikely in a Schuller pulpit. Coleman said she wasn’t aware of Jacobs’ visit and had never heard of her, although programs featuring Jacobs’ name and face were widely available around the church campus.

Using a Spanish interpreter and citing God as her source, Jacobs prophesied that Gebel’s ministry would grow to 10,000, then 20,000, then spread nationally, leading a Latino-based revival of Christianity in America.

For one thing, just because some claims to be a prophet and healer does not mean they are a fundamentalist. Jacobs might be, but I wonder how that description was decided upon. As interchangeable with “evangelical?” As a pejorative term used to refer to someone who might be considered nutty for God?

More important, though, is what Jacobs was doing at the Spanish-language service and why her visit would have been “unlikely in a Schuller pulpit.” Crystal Cathedral started in the Reformed Church in America, and I think it’s still in good standing, and that is definitely not a denomination associated with fundamentalism.

So … a good story but one that left some questions unanswered. However, it probably won’t be the LAT’s last on the Crystal Cathedral.

IMAGE: Via Wikimedia Commons

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The NYT as religion

Much will be discussed today about the future of the New York Times and women in journalism as Jill Abramson is set to become the new executive editor of the Times. We would not usually pick up on this type of transition unless we see direct impact on religion coverage, but two particular quotes caught our eyes.

Ms. Abramson, 57, said that as a born-and-raised New Yorker, she considered being named editor of The Times to be like “ascending to Valhalla.”

“In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion,” she said. “If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”

Valhalla is the hall of the chosen dead in Norse mythology. The second quote about religion is definitely interesting, one of those where you might think, “We’re not surprised that the editor of the New York Times would think such a pronouncement, but did she really just confirm it?” I wish we could read more of the context of that interview, but that is all we get in the announcement article.

What does it mean for the future of religion coverage at the Times? Maybe nothing, but it seems to suggest a particular understanding about the world, religion and truth from the paper’s throne. A reporter or editor certainly does not need to be personally religious to be able to produce quality religion reporting, but I wonder if Abramson will lean towards or away from devoting the paper’s resources to covering religion.

For old times’ sake, let’s pull up this amusing blog post from Frank Lockwood, the religion editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, on “Enjoying a Pentecostal exorcism with NYT’s Jill Abramson.” When Lockwood was traveling to Argentina on a fellowship with journalists like Abramson, they attended a Pentecostal church where they were anointed with oil and watched an exorcism.

“There were only a handful of people there, for a service that included no piano, no organ, no scripture reading and no altar call,” Lockwood wrote. “There was, however, an offering. ‘I was ready for this,’ Jill said, reaching into her pocket to retrieve a low-denomination piece of Argentinian currency. In return for Jill’s gift, church workers gave her a piece of Spanish-language church literature, which she kindly passed onto me.”

Abramson would ask Lockwood what was going on in the service.

“He’s going to exorcise a demon now,” I whispered to the managing editor of the New York Times, adding, “This is somewhat unusual.”

She didn’t say a word. Together, we watched as the preacher screamed “Fuera” — Out! Out! — he yelled. But the devil refused to budge. So the preacher yelled some more and manhandled the poor woman.

It was an ugly bit of domestic battery — closer to a Jerry Springer melee than a World Wrestling Federation brawl — but horrible to watch. The show was all the more evil because the woman’s pre-teen boy was on hand to witness it all. [Afterwards, when I questioned the appropriateness of manhandling a young woman in front of her child, I received a cryptic reply: Don't worry. He's seen it all before.]

My mind wandered as the farce continued. “There are good Pentecostal churches in this city with good music and good people with good hearts”, I said to myself. “But this is the face of Pentecostalism that you’ve revealed to the managing editor of the New York Times.”

At least, it hasn’t been boring.

It really is a fun story, but we hope this is not Abramson’s only experience in a religious institution–that is, if you don’t count the Times.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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God, god and Oprah’s good-bye

It’s a Zen thing.

Click here if you want to read the dead-tree-pulp Washington Post story about the final show by Oprah Winfrey. Or don’t. It really doesn’t matter, because this story is about a television event — not a signpost event in the development of pop and/or civic religion in American culture. Ditto for this news report in the New York Times.

But back to the Post. That news report I mentioned earlier does not contain the stuff that matters the most to the principalities and powers in that newsroom.

Why do I say that? If you head to the Post website on this day after the TV apocalypse and click on the word “Oprah” in the highlighted “In the News” list at the masthead, it takes you straight to the following online meditation by the Post‘s own spiritual seeker in chief, the atheist/Episcopal guru Sally Quinn. That’s where you will find the content — Oprah: America’s high priestess — that really matters and it sounds something like this:

Oprah Winfrey has discovered one of the most effective ways of imparting her beliefs to others. Not by telling them what to do, but by getting them to decide what to do for themselves. She is the master of “free will,” an often controversial subject in contemporary religion.

In recent years, religious behaviors have changed dramatically. More people have left traditional religions to join congregations which are self validating. Gone were the fire and brimstone, you’re-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. Many religious and spiritual leaders have taken the lead on this, realizing people don’t want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered.

Oprah led the way. It may be a reach to say that she has changed the direction of modern religion, but people who have tuned into her show for 25 years have come to realize they are not perfect, that nobody is perfect and that she is not perfect. Oprah did not demand perfection. She helped people understand that they were human and that their humanity was to be celebrated.

Actually, a wide range of believers believe in “free will,” including traditional Christians. That isn’t the issue. The debates between Oprah and traditional religious leaders have long centered on whether there are any consequences for sinful choices, consequences in this life and the next. Oprah’s brilliant move was to erase, as Quinn said, discussions of “judgment,” “fear” and “punishment.” She also erased lines between religions that, truth be told, have serious differences in their core doctrines and practices.

She led the way in creating what I have long called “OprahAmerica,” it’s a culture defined by emotion, feelings and stories, not by acts of creeds, doctrines and sacraments that have eternal consequences.

So Quinn perfectly summarized the core of this event. Nailed. It.

Note, however, that her work does not “cover” this event in terms of news. Instead, she celebrates it. Why? In part, Quinn founded “On Faith” to celebrate this approach to religion news (see “On Fog,” a meditation) — focusing on religion as a realm of feelings and opinions, not as a subject in which there are events and trends that are best covered in a balanced, accurate, journalistic manner.

Readers who are seeking journalistic content about the SUBJECT of Oprah’s work and its impact on American religion will have to look elsewhere. You can start with this roundup of links by veteran Godbeat specialist Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today. Then head over here to a fine piece by Elizabeth Tenety at, ironically, the “On Faith” site at the Post.

If you find other journalistic reports on the farewell, please leave us the URLs in the comments pages.

Out at the Los Angeles Times, the main “Oprah” link also leads to a first-person, heart-on-sleeve essay that centers on feelings and emotions, rather than a more brass-tacks journalistic approach. This essay in the “Show Tracker” entertainment weblog by Rebecca Traister — author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women” — does contain this commentary on one of the most important sequences in the Oprah farewell ceremony.

This is long, but essential:

The weirdest part of the episode came when Oprah — usually secular, if blandly spiritual –- touched on the divine, allowing as how her answer to how she’s done it all these years has always been, “My team, and Jesus. Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” Anticipating questions about which god she was talking about, she continued, “I’m talking about the same one you’re talking about. I’m talking about alpha and omega, the omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one and only G-O-D.”

Well, OK, then! “I know I’ve never been alone, and you haven’t either,” she said. “And I know that that presence that flow, some people call it grace, is working in my life at every single turn, and yours too if you let it in.”

Wait, was Oprah preaching? Yes, yes, she was. And how did she know all this? She asked. Wellllll…. “That one teeny little sperm of Vernon Winfrey hittin’ that egg of Vernita Lee in the one time they were together under the trees in Mississippi and, voila, out pops me!”

Oprah’s theorem on the existence of god is reliant on the story of her own conception. “From Mississippi to this moment with you, I know what a miracle that is,” she said. “God is love, and God is life, and your life is always speaking to you,” she said. “First in whispers. … If you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder and louder. … So I ask you: What are the whispers in your life right now?”

What does that mean? Why “god” in one place and “God” in another?

You see, these are the wrong questions. They are content-driven questions. They are mean, doctrinal, logical questions. The big question is this one: How does the gospel according to Oprah make you feel?

And on this day, that’s the news. Literally.

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Define ‘evangelical,’ yet again

Sorry ’bout this, but it’s time for another picky post on religion-beat linguistics. But first, a question about one of the biggest and most important religion trends of the late 20th century.

OK, readers, what is the form of faith that is — through its rapid growth — literally changing the face of South America? Does anyone recall that particular Pew Forum study that, justifiably so, generated so many headlines about five years ago? Right, that would be Pentecostal Christianity.

Now, Pentecostal and charismatic people are a pretty complex lot, since these are terms that can and do describe everyone from charismatic Catholics to Oneness Pentecostals have even have a unique (many would say heretical) view of the nature of the Godhead.

The latter also have interesting views on women and long hair.

Say what? With that in mind, let’s check out this entire Associated Press report, which showed up all over the web because of its rather strange crime hook:

SAO PAULO – Brazilian police say a thief cut off and stole a woman’s long hair while she waited at a bus stop.

Police say the hair was virgin, meaning it had not been chemically treated, and will probably be sold for the production of wigs.

Inspector Jose Carlos Bezerra da Silva said Friday to Globo TV’s G1 website that the woman was waiting for a bus in the central city of Goiania when the man used a knife-like weapon to cut the hair, which reached past her waist. She said she thought the man was going to steal her purse so she turned her back to him.

Silva said he’d never seen a theft like it in 20 years. He said the 24-year-old woman reported the case to police because she is evangelical and had to explain to her pastor why her hair wasn’t long anymore.

Readers! What think ye? Has anyone out there heard of “evangelicals” emphasizing women needing to keep their hair long? I mean, even among homeschooling folks?

So what are the odds that this woman was a Pentecostal believer — a Oneness, Apostolic Pentecostal believer in fact — and not a generic “evangelical”?

I know, I know. “Evangelical” is vague and has little meaning these days. That’s precisely my point.

In this case, the vague word it is also certainly inaccurate and makes the story weaker.

Correction, please.

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