So, did anyone out there in GetReligion reader land manage to make it all the way through that epic CNN.com report entitled "How the Ultimate Scandal Saved One Pastor," focusing on the life and times of the Pentecostal superstar Archbishop Earl Paulk Jr. and his secret son (for years called his nephew) the Rev. D.E. Paulk?
I can understand it if you gave up before the end. The sexual and political politics in this four-act drama are stunningly complex and scandalous and that's the whole point. It's the story of the sins of a megachurch pastor who, within a certain niche of Pentecostalism, became a powerful player in -- the key for CNN, of course -- one political corner of the Religious Right. It's about the sins of the father, literally, and the impact on the son who finally breaks free and becomes his own person, a young hero who slays his own dragons.
Here's the material that sets up the drama:
His life before was so complicated that D.E. simply told curious church visitors who said his name sounded familiar to "Google me."
Google gives part of his story: How the Paulks built the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Chapel Hill Harvester Church into one of the nation's first and largest megachurches; how three American presidents honored their church; how the place imploded after the revelation about D.E.'s biological father. But the headlines don't say what happened to D.E. afterward.
How did the revelations affect his relationship with Don Paulk, the man who raised him; the person he still calls dad. Did his uncle, Bishop Paulk, ever apologize? How could D.E. even set foot in church again?
The headlines also don't explain what happened to D.E.'s mother, Clariece. How did she explain her actions to her son and husband? Did the marriage survive? Clariece Paulk, 76, recently told me that she prayed for over 20 years that no one would discover her secret. At times, Bishop Paulk would apprise D.E. from a distance and say to her, "He kind of looks like me in the shoulders."
"I'd be so afraid that somebody would see a picture of him and Donnie Earl at the same age, and I tried to hide the pictures," she said. "I lived in fear, just misery."
D.E.'s story is not just about a scandal. It's about fate. Are we all captive to the arc of our family history, no matter what we do?
Big stuff, requiring lots of photos and thousands of words.
It's clear that D.E. Paulk has been affected by all of this and the story even quotes a few people who oppose the young pastor, saying that they see some of the manipulative powers of his father in his new work. The key: People are quoted being critical of D.E. at the personal level -- but the story does not contain a single authoritative voice who critiques the actual content of what has happened to the latter-day Paulk's work and theology.
This is really strange and represents an incredible missed opportunity, when it comes to serious news coverage of the emerging evangelical and Pentecostal left.
Readers are told and shown the changes, that D.E. has moved to a kind of Universalistic (with a large "U") faith that accepts the unity of world religions and that he has embraced a nonjudgmental approach to issues of sexuality and gender. This is called "The Gospel of Inclusion" and, according to this CNN piece, things are going just fine with D.E. Paulk's new flock, even after all of the evils he endured all those years with his hypocritical conservative Christian family.
What does that look like?
God doesn't exclude: Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Wiccans, gays and lesbians -- God accepts them all. There is no hell except what one creates with one's own actions. People don't need a "Man of God" to give them revelations; God is within them. He wrote a book, "I Don't Know... The Way of Knowing," explaining his journey. He wrote that while he was still a "Jesus freak," there is one river, many wells.
"Religion's nature is to exclude, to see in black and white, to deny exceptions and to maintain dominance by supposedly knowing who qualifies and who does not," he wrote. "Why is it that religion always seems to need a WHIPPING BOY?"
D.E. didn't just call for a bland commitment to interfaith acceptance.
"It's not just live and let live," he said of the inclusion message. "It's God in all of these streams. That thing you call Jesus. The thing you call the Prophet Mohammed they call Buddha. It's just different names, but it's the same spirit."
He could have never preached that message at Chapel Hill, but court-ordered DNA tests have a way of liberating a pastor. What did he have to fear now? He had survived the worst the church world could throw at him.
His scandal was his salvation.
And there's more, so that you get the picture:
Today, the church is a rarity on many levels: interfaith, interracial, a mosaic of people deep in the Bible Belt where many churches remain segregated. The church has gay couples, college students, agnostics, some Muslims and even a Wiccan priest. Pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi adorn the walls.
A stained glass window looming over the pulpit captures the spirit of the church. It's a design that contains a Christian cross, ringed by symbols from Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. In the middle is a dove, which symbolizes the spirit of peace that binds them all together.
Let me stress that this is a very important and valid story. For several decades, some leaders inside Pentecostal Christianity have warned that their faith has been too rooted in personal experience, emotions and charismatic gifts. At some point, they said, a true Pentecostal left would emerge and say that they were following the Holy Spirit away from traditional doctrines of Christian history and into a new and relativistic future.
Is that what has happened with D.E. Paulk, the heir -- kind of -- to one of those charismatic dynasties in which leaders were allowed to serve as their own church power structure, free from any ties that would bind them to a larger source of doctrinal authority and oversight?
To my shock, the CNN piece allowed D.E. to say what he had to say and that was that. The CNN team simply looked down on his new church from on high and saw that it was good. And that's that. No other voices. No debates. No context showing that this new Paulk in some way represents a larger story in American Christianity.
Nope. What we have here, in the end, is a massive -- and I mean massive -- public-relations piece for this new church. It's a valid story and one that needed more work, more information, more history, more context and, most of all, more voices.
A tiny, tiny drop of skepticism would have helped, too. But, hey, why complicate matters when you are writing about a new hero whose goal is to slay all of those nasty Old Time Religion dragons?