'Lifies' and the Haggard saga

Gayle Haggard, the loyal wife of fallen evangelical mega-pastor Ted Haggard, was all over the mainstream media world (Oprah, "Today," etc.) last week promoting her new book: "Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour." With this book blitz, reporting on the Ted Haggard story has now officially moved from Chapter 1 in the Media Playbook (Hard news: Scandal) to Chapter 3 (Features: "Lifie") without going through Chapter 2 (Analysis: What the heck is really going on here?). Readers would have benefited from deeper questioning.

Ted Haggard finally admitted his sins in November 2006 and was subsequently fired from the Colorado Springs megachurch he founded. He resurfaced in January 2009 when HBO broadcast Alexandra Pelosi's gripping documentary, "The Trials of Ted Haggard" and he and Gayle appeared on Oprah's show.

Late last year he started a new church down the road from his old congregation. At that point, some reporters (including local religion reported Mark Barna at The Gazette) did good analysis pieces that raised questions about Haggard's suitability to lead.

All those questions have been forgotten in the wake of Gayle's successful p.r. campaign (which was orchestrated by Tyndale, the Wheaton, Illinois-based evangelical publisher that learned a few things about big-league promotion with the Left Behind novels). Marcia Z. Nelson of Publishers Weekly's Religion BookLine reports that Tyndale has already gone back to press after selling out a first printing of 75,000 copies.

The Haggard story has now evolved into the type of media events Neal Gabler called "lifies," which are celebrity-driven, media-friendly stories about failure and redemption that serve up big, gooey life lessons for viewers.

Gayle Haggard presents readers and viewers with a powerful message of marital love, personal loyalty and Christian forgiveness, and I was particularly impressed by her interview with Meredith Vieira on "Today" and the piece by Adelle banks of Religion News Service.

But as the Haggards seek to find a new life and calling for themselves, important questions remain: - Can we believe Ted when he says, as he did on Oprah last week, that after therapy, he has not had "one compulsive thought or behavior"? - Even if that is true, is Ted now in a position to once again assume the mantle of pastoral leadership? - Gayle Haggard has certainly suffered enough already, and her husband's sins do not necessarily bar her from leadership. But is the "evangelical industrial complex" helping to return the couple to a form of shared leadership by publishing and promoting Gayle's book?

Gabler's "Life: The Movie" argues that entertainment has conquered reality. The Haggard saga, at least as it is currently being covered, is the latest in a long list of stories about tarnished evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal leaders that demonstrates the truth of Gabler's argument in religious circles.

Despite their frequent and often angry protests against pop culture, many Christians reveal that they are all too willing to submit to the marketplace--not any ecclesiastical authority--as the ultimate arbiter of who qualifies as a leader.

This isn't the last we will hear from the Haggards. Perhaps next time around enterprising reporters will ask some of the tough questions about leadership and authority that have been lost in in the "lifies."

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