Over at Vice, there’s an excellent article about The Power Team, a bunch of god-bothering beefcakes who used to break stuff on TBN and then tell people they needed to get Born Again. Most readers will probably focus on the scandalous aspects of the story—a multi-million dollar bankruptcy, and the leader engaging in, as one member put it, “too many naughty behaviours”. But for me, that’s not the big news. The big news is that members of The Power Team got injured. If I had known that as a Christian kid, it would have blown my mind.
I wasn’t (quite) naïve enough to believe that the Power Team achieved its feats purely by the power of God, and they didn’t claim they did. The Vice story notes:
“We’re not trying to spiritualise the feats,” said Jacobs in a 1988 interview with People. “It’s just a platform to share the word of God. It’s the bait.”
It was pretty obvious that these guys had big muscles, and I was never foolish enough to think that if I had enough faith, God would empower me to explode hot water bottles. But I did believe that God was on their side, that they were able to get that strong because God helped them. Where other bodybuilders relied on steroids, The Power Team had the Holy Spirit. They may not have been trying to spiritualise the feats, but when I watched them in the context of a morning on what was then called The Christian Channel Europe, with Benny Hinn healing cancer immediately before and Kenneth Copeland making people miraculously wealthy immediately after, they certainly seemed spiritualised.
Regardless of how the Power Team were able to perform the feats, they were doing them in the service of Jesus Christ. God had anointed their ministry to reach the lost. If you had asked me in 1996 to guess whether the Power Team ever got hurt during their stunts, I would have told you there was no way. The Lord would protect them from harm while they were doing his will.
It turns out the Lord was not protecting them.
Injuries were part of the deal. If you walked away with only bruises and cuts, you were lucky. It was rarely a question of if someone needed stitches, but rather how many. Keene estimates they’ve had close to 20 broken arms over the years, as well as seven full knee reconstructions. But despite the theatrics of smashing bricks and snapping cuffs, there was one feat every member dreaded.
“The hot water bottle,” said Dalcour, “We’d blow this hot water bottle up until it exploded.”
Hot water bottles are those rubber containers that, back in the day, your grandparents put at their feet while they slept. The density and thickness of the rubber keeps the hot liquid from scalding skin – but that attribute also makes them rather difficult to, say, blow up with your mouth. “When they break, they slap against faces, tear skin, leave cuts under the eyes,” said Reid.
Child Jonny might have been able to handle the knowledge that some injuries occurred. I could have explained it by saying that, on those evenings, the Power Teamers must have had some sin in their life that meant they were outside God’s hedge of protection. But twenty broken arms and seven knee reconstructions? Unimaginable.
Of course, no one in the Power Team ever said they didn’t get injured, and obviously they wouldn’t show the injuries on TV because it was supposed to be entertainment—they didn’t show injuries on Gladiators either. But every Christian leader I ever knew came down incredibly hard on us children for the sin of “lying by omission”, and from where I’m sitting, neglecting to mention that the Power Team needed knee reconstructions looks a lot like lying by omission. And I’m sure this wasn’t intentional. It’s just that none of these men in their 30s thought about how it would look to a bunch of kids watching it, and no one allowed for the way the performances would be used by Christian broadcasters and youth pastors.
There were no miracles.
Next to that, the news that their leader was sleeping around and spending money everywhere doesn’t seem like a big deal. Whenever something like that came out, I never had any problem swallowing the line that I shouldn’t blame God. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. Life as a Christian was one big battle between the spirit and the flesh, and sometimes the flesh won. I knew that. Sometimes I stole cookies; sometimes televangelists have sex with prostitutes. Same thing.
Of course, when those televangelists were giving their testimonies, it was all about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. “Before I met Jesus, I was addicted to drugs, I was broke, and I hated myself. Without Him, I can do nothing. Jesus changed me inside and made me a new person.”
As soon as that televangelist fell from grace, it was all “Well, we all have a sin nature.”
Well, which one is it? Do we have a sin nature or are we transformed by the saving grace of the Holy Spirit? No one ever seemed to notice this glaring contradiction (including myself at the time), but it really matters, because it seems the main selling point for becoming a Christian could just be ignored whenever it mattered. And if you’re only transformed by the Holy Spirit when your life is going well, then that’s a pretty crap transformation.