A flawed, sadly one-sided longread about the lives of Oral and Richard Roberts -- that is still worth reading

First things first. I have done my share of work, as a reporter and as a mass-media professor, with faculty from a wide range of Christian colleges and universities. Perhaps this is why I have heard of Evangel University in Springfield, Mo.

However, if you are interested in the history of religion on America, there is also a good chance that you know about Evangel, because, as its website notes:

Evangel University, the first Pentecostal liberal arts college chartered in America, opened its doors on September 1, 1955.

Why bring this up? I imagine that, out in the congregation of GetReligion readers, there are others who follow the @Longreads list that promotes lots of amazing journalism that is written in, well, a "longreads" feature style. It's a must-follow for anyone who teaches or practices journalism (or does both at the same time).

Well, the other day @Longreads alerted me to a feature story about a topic that has long interested me -- the status of the kingdom of one of North America's most interesting evangelists and broadcasters, the late Rev. Oral Roberts. The article ran at This Land Press, under the headline: "The Prodigal Prince: Richard Roberts and the Decline of the Oral Roberts Dynasty." (Interview with author Kiera Feldman here.)

This is an article worth reading, especially if -- like me -- you worked your way through that great media firestorm in the 1980s that many called "Pearlygate." I have also spoken on the campus in recent years.

Still, there are holes and a few flaws in this feature and some major missed opportunities. But let's use the following passage as our launching point:

Born in 1918, Oral Roberts was the son of an itinerant preacher in the Pentecostal Holiness Church -- “Holycostal Penniless,” kids in the church called it. ... In Pentecostalism, Oral is considered the godfather of the charismatic movement, which emphasizes divine miracles and ecstatic experience. Beginning in the late 1940s, Oral held crusades across the country and all over the world, his 10,000-person tent overflowing with those desperate for his touch to heal their suffering bodies and -- often -- finances. In the decades that followed, Oral turned faith healing into a wildly profitable enterprise. He hired top-notch admen and direct-mail consultants who perfected a method for using targeted mailings to solicit donations. The rate of return was so high that Oral’s ministry had to get its own zip code.
Oral longed for middle-class respectability. Being a traveling faith healer and direct-mail mogul would never get him there. But brick and mortar would. When tent crusade audiences began to wane in the early 1960s, Oral switched gears and built a Pentecostal university, the first of its kind. From gold-tinted windows to golden latticework to the Prayer Tower’s royal blue stripes and cherry red overhang, the entire campus glittered under the Oklahoma sun. “Nothing second-class for God,” Oral liked to say.

To be precise, Roberts founded the school in 1962, which isn't that long after the founding of Evangel, but it is important to note that error.

Why? Part of the problem may be in the phrase "the first of its kind," because this piece never really addresses the meaning of the word "Pentecostalism" and the cultural and doctrinal differences between that term and the broader movement that marches under the banner "charismatic."

This is a major hole, since there are some pretty glaring differences -- cultural, in particular -- between these groups. This is especially true if the goal was to dig into the "Holycostal Penniless" angle of the Roberts story (and there is much in there to explore).

For example, this article never mentions the great Azusa Street Revival in the early 20th century that birthed the modern Pentecostal movement in Christianity, nor does the article mention that -- from day one -- this was one of the most diverse and color-blind events in the history of American religion. There is no way to understand the modern Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, the charismatic renewal movement or people like Oral Roberts without understanding that. Case in point: Look up the role of female evangelists and ordained female clergy in these movements. Case in point: Walk around the ORU campus and compare the racial diversity found there (and on the board of trustees) with the typical Christian college in North America.

Reporters interested in these topics simply must read up on Azusa Street and, at the global level, dig into the monumental Pew Forum study on Pentecostalism (executive summary here), the fastest growing form of Christianity in the world today.

In short: This colorful and very readable article tends to be rather simplistic when it comes to portraying these believers. It is also wrong -- period -- to call Oral Roberts the "godfather" of charismatic life. He was, however, one -- repeat one -- of the human bridges between Pentecostals and the wider world of Protestantism.

This raises another question that could have been explored in this article: The Rev. Oral Roberts was an ordained minister -- during the heart of his public ministry -- in what Protestant denomination? That would be the United Methodist Church.

Surprised? It is true that, in 1987, the church's Oklahoma Annual Conference (responding to criticism of his fundraising tactics) changed his status from "minister" to "elder."

I think that this United Methodist connection would have surprised many readers, simply because it points to the fact that the charismatic renewal movement also had a major impact in pulpits (and at altars) that don't fit the stereotypes in the Feldman longread. We're talking about United Methodists, yes, but also among Episcopalians, Catholics and many others. Using television, Roberts and other charismatic figures -- for better and for worse -- had followings in many pews far outside the “Holycostal Penniless” world.

Now, does any of this negate the central thrust of this longread, which was the controversy, materialism and confusion at the heart of the life and work of Oral's heir, the Rev. Richard Roberts? On one level, no.

However, as a reporter who covered the "Pearlygate" era -- especially Jim Bakker & Co. -- I have read many of the key books and articles about the chameleons at the center of this story, including Oral Roberts.

Let me say this: This longread contains all kinds of damaging and damning material and, frankly, most of the facts about Richard Roberts, in particular, look sound.

Still, I have serious doubts that, well, Oral Roberts never did much of anything good in his whole life and ministry, something valid that brought him the love of so many people of many races and income levels. It would be easy to get that impression by reading this article.

Addressing that side of the story by talking to some of those people would have only made the plot more dramatic and, at times, painful. It would have made the story more real, and that would have been a good thing. Otherwise, it's easy to see this as a flawed, one-sided hit piece and the people who loved Oral Roberts, as well has those touched by his sins and flaws, deserved better.

This story is complex enough, and tragic enough, as it is. There was no need to get simplistic, when dealing with a charismatic leader of this kind.

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