I admit to a certain and undying fascination, a kind of guilty pleasure, when it comes to television evangelists. I find them all to be hucksters, mountebanks, shill artists of the first water, but I still gaze at them with a sort of witless awe. What is it about them that seizes my attention so thoroughly at times that I simply cannot avert my eyes? Is it akin to the grim human desire to slow down at the scene of an auto accident in order to see the devastation? Or is it the draw of a game of ice hockey, where one longs for the gloves to drop and the sticks to fly in a furious fight? I remember all too well the professional football game where the Washington quarterback, Joe Theismann, was sacked by a huge defensive lineman, suffering a terrible broken leg, which the replay camera showed us again and again, as the leg bent in an angle no leg should be angled. I was watching that game, and could not look away.
Since I moved to Los Angeles, I no longer have a cable TV service, so I cannot flip through the channels any more, on occasion lighting on TBN, the Trinity Broadcasting Service, which 24 hours every day broadcasts one or another of these would-be agents of God, going through their paces, shouting the gospel, or more accurately their approximation of some gospel or other, urging full repentance on those in the studio, surely by now fully repentant(?), along with the unseen masses within the sound of their very distinctive voices, all concluding, of course, with a desperate plea for cash to “keep us on the air,” to “continue this life-giving ministry, “to save as many as we can before the Lord returns in glory.”
Now I get my TV evangelist fix only from CNN on my phone, where each day I peruse the news of the previous day, after I have read, I hope more carefully and in much more detail, my Los Angeles Times newspaper in the print edition. All of us are in isolation at the moment, or should be, hoping for any sign that COVID-19 will release its grip on us sooner rather than later. I saw last week, April 2, I think, a short video of Kenneth Copeland, one of the TV preachers I have been observing for many years. Copeland is a Texan with his ministry based in Tarrant County, on a sprawling ranch just north of Ft. Worth. I lived in Dallas for 40 years, so was well aware of Rev. Copeland’s work that has prospered for decades. He is now 83 years old, and by Oct. 2018, his net worth was said to be $760 million dollars. As you can see, I used the word “prospered” advisedly. He flies in one of two jet planes to his preaching engagements around the world, and his presence on television is ubiquitous.
Last week, he was dressed in a blinding white suit with tasteful blue shirt and matching tie, and peering intently into the camera, surrounded by five other preachers, not six-feet apart I fear, he shouted in his crusty and fervent Texas-tinged voice, “Blow, wind of God and destroy COVID-19,” a phrase echoed by the surrounding group. Copeland then concluded that the virus was indeed destroyed, and “would never return.” Copeland is from the Pentecostal tradition, where speaking in tongues is practiced, along with other physical manifestations of God’s presence, like deeply fervent prayer, slaying in the spirit (where a worshipper is touched by the leader and swoons), and urgent demands to “give your life to Jesus.” He apparently believes that God is particularly attuned to his praying, and if he does so with obvious conviction and “contrite heart” (Ps.51), what he asks of God he will receive.
Rev. Copeland brooks no compromise in his relationship to those who do not agree with him in matters of the faith, and he is not at all ashamed to use every form of shame-based or fear-based tactics both to wheedle attention from his viewers and to take from them copious amounts of money. Copeland is an entrepreneurial wizard, conjoining salesmanship, acting skills, and God into a highly successful stew of legerdemain and hucksterism that has made him rich into his old age.
Compare Kenneth Copeland, if you will, with the picture of Peter in Acts 3. He and John find themselves in the Jerusalem temple not long after Peter has preached his famous sermon wherein the Holy Spirit falls on a huge crowd of listeners, coming from the four corners of the earth, many of whom join the emerging Christian community. After that extraordinary event, Peter and John head to the temple at “the hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1) and encounter a lame man, unable to walk since his birth. Each day, we are told, he is carried and placed down at a “gate of the temple called beautiful” (we have no idea where this place may have been) in order that he might beg alms from those entering the temple. He is the ancient equivalent of the ones baring cardboard signs, standing at the intersections in all of our major American cities.
Peter first “looked at him intently,” rather like Copeland’s piercing camera gaze, and demands that the beggar look back at him and John (Acts 3:4). One imagines that the beggar has rarely received such complete attention from a prospective giver; most like us moderns, may hand a few coins to the beggar, but not make much if any eye contact. The beggar may have thought that Peter and John were particularly inclined to offer him a significant gift, but his hope was immediately dashed. Unlike Copeland, Peter says, “I do not have silver or gold” (Acts 3:6). Rev. Copeland is of course awash in both, but hardly proposes to part with any of it, but rather continues to ask for more. Peter then offers the man what he least expected, namely the healing of his body. On occasion, I have witnessed in one or another of Copeland’s services some claims to healing, though I have no proof that any healings have in fact occurred. Surely, his demand that COVID-19 be gone has born little fruit yet one week after his command that it disappear. I am afraid that its increase in America is still evident as more infections and death are with us daily as of this week of April 6.
After the formerly lame man “leaps up, stands, walks, enters, walks, leaps, and praises” (an astonishingly full description of a post-healing event at Acts 3:8), the response of the assembled crowd who knew the man as lame is “astonishment and amazement” (Acts 3:10). But Peter in response to those emotions is himself amazed that they are amazed. But then he asks, “Why are you staring at us, as though by our own power or piety we had enabled him to walk” (Acts 3:12)? And here Rev. Copeland and Peter completely part company. Copeland and his fellow famous evangelists portray their own power and piety precisely as the source of their ministries and the basis for their constant request for money to continue those ministries. Where Peter points to “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob who has glorified the child Jesus” as the source of his power, Kenneth Copeland points to himself and his supposedly God-ordained jets as the sources of his work for God in the world. Nothing is more inconsistent with the call of God to genuine ministry than this, that the agent of that ministry is unable to move himself aside to allow God to act instead of presenting himself as the sole actor worthy of praise and cash. One would be hard-pressed to imagine Kenneth Copeland ministering in the world without silver or gold, walking resolutely to Rome to die an ignominious death for his master Jesus. Surely, Kenneth Copeland is a fraud, a swindler, a confidence man, who deserves no attention and no financial support.
When my grandmother was living, she faithfully sent $20/month of her $220 Social Security check to Rev. Rex Humbard of Akron, Ohio, another of the Copeland ilk. And though I urged her to support some local ministry, one of whom could offer her support in her aging, she “just loved how Rex and his family could sing.” Needless to say, when my Nana died, aged 97, Rex Humbard knew precisely nothing of her. We need no Humbards or Copelands to pray away our woes while their cash registers ring with loot. Support your local ministries, and like Peter, point your life toward God, the true source of hope and healing in our troubled world.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)