Saturday, February 14, 2015

First Contact – Part 20 – TV Evangelists

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of evangelists on TV. Originally it was because one or both of my parents watched them and I was a captive since we only had one TV in the house. Of course we only had five channels to watch, so it wasn’t as if I had a lot of other choices. However, as I got into my middle to late teen years, I found that there were actually some TV evangelists that I enjoyed watching.

Some of the TV preachers I have watched, such as Joel Osteen, Ernest Angley, and Garner Ted Armstrong, I have already mentioned in earlier posts. Others I have watched at one point or another include Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jack Van Impe, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Copeland, John Ankerberg, Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, Gene Scott, Rex Humbard, T.D. Jakes, David Jeremiah, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, Ben Kinchlow, Hal Lindsey, James Robison, Adrian Rogers, Robert Schuller, Charles Stanley, and Robert Tilton. Some of these evangelists grated on my nerves while others were quite enjoyable to listen to. As you might expect, I tended to like the more calm preachers that attempted to approach the Bible in a logical way rather than exuding emotion. I didn’t mind them being passionate, but the “Glory be to God!” happy feet ones turned me off. I also liked listening to the ones that concentrated on Biblical prophecy.

While I was still living at home with my parents, I listened mostly to people like Ernest Angley, Garner Ted Armstrong, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Kenneth Copeland, and Jack Van Impe. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I actually went to see Ernest Angley in person.

My mother was a big fan of Oral Roberts and used to receive lots of literature from his ministry. After Mom’s death I found a few photos of the Roberts family that she had received and stored away. I always thought of Roberts as a decent preacher, but was skeptical of the healings he performed. He pretty much lost any confidence I had in him when in 1987 he famously announced that God had told him He would call him home if he didn’t raise $8 million by a certain date.

While on vacation with my parents one year, we visited my dad’s brother in Oklahoma and actually got to go to Oral Roberts University (ORU), home of the famous Prayer Tower, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember the day we were heading over to ORU. It was sweltering hot and we didn’t have air conditioning in our car. So we relied on the old method of cooling, which was to roll the windows down. But hot humid air is not conducive to cooling. Thus, all three of us were a bit irritable. Dad pulled into a gas station to refuel and get us something to drink. While Mom and I were waiting in the car, she opened her door slightly to let more air in while the car was stationary. Once Dad finished, he got back in the car and pulled out to turn left on a four lane road. Mom had forgotten she had her door ajar, so as Dad turned left the door swung open to the right and Mom’s purse, which had been sitting in the floor bed, tumbled onto the pavement in the middle of the road.  Mom said, “There went my purse.” But still being irritable from the heat she said, “Just leave it. Just go on and leave it.” Dad, even though frustrated, soldiered onward with his belief in “No Purse Left Behind”. He pulled off the side of the road, waited for traffic to clear, quickly ran to the middle of the road, retrieved the purse, and ran back to the car. Fortunately, the purse required no medical attention as no other cars had crushed it. Anyway, after this incident we were tempted to just leave town without visiting ORU, but we didn’t. Once we got to ORU and began walking around the campus, we all calmed down.

Back in the late 1980’s, while on vacation, my wife and I visited Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina. You may remember this as being the theme park started by Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye. Our visit there was after the infamous Jim Bakker sex scandal and cover-up. With the Bakker ministry on the fritz, Heritage USA had greatly deteriorated; a sad sight to see. Jim and Tammy Faye were some of my mother’s favorites. She ordered literature from them as well as albums by Tammy Faye, who had become quite successful as a Christian singer despite all that makeup. I inherited those Tammy Faye albums, but have since either sold them in a yard sale or donated them to charity. Needless to say, I wasn’t a big fan.

Kenneth Copeland was another TV preacher that I listened to frequently. He occasionally put on his “Glory be to God!” happy feet, but not enough to drive me away. Copeland was one of those speakers that could almost convince you to give him your coat and then turn around and sell it back to you. He always spoke with such confidence and certitude that it was hard to question if he really knew what he was talking about. I’m the type of person that will still have doubts even when I have studied an issue and am 100% certain that I am right. I guess I just really took to heart the admonition of Han Solo to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie. When Luke successfully blew up an attacking ship, Han said, “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.” Throughout history you can see people with great certitude being shamed by new knowledge contrary to their beliefs. So, I always season my certitude with a pinch of doubt. In other words, I try not to get cocky.

Of all the prophecy interpreting TV evangelists, Jack Van Impe, along with his wife Rexella, was one of my favorites. He too had an air of confidence about him. He usually attempted to connect Biblical prophecy to current events. It was amazing to me how much Bible prophecy was coming true during my lifetime. Well, it was until I learned that many of the same prophecies had been fulfilled many times before. In other words, people are always finding current events that seem to match Bible prophecy. Ultimately, I came to believe that the preterist view of prophecy made the most sense. I discuss this in more detail in my “God Is” book.

One day I was watching Robert Tilton on TV, and he was offering to send viewers some miracle water. I decided to take him up on his offer just to see what it was all about. Upon receiving it, I discovered it was a small quantity of water sealed in square plastic pouch about one inch on a side. Just a few days afterwards I won $1000 in a local radio contest. I was stunned! A few days after that I learned that a friend of mine was sick and running a high fever. I went to his house and laid the water pouch on his forehead. Instantly the fever disappeared and he was back at work the next day. After 35 years, that pouch of water still stays with me everywhere I go. Just kidding. I threw the pouch away soon after receiving it. The plastic is probably still in a landfill somewhere slowly deteriorating. I once heard a funny story about Tilton. A former preacher from the church where my wife is a member was at our house for dinner one evening. He told us that when he was in seminary one of the students showed him and others a video of TV footage of Tilton. Tilton made intense expressions when he talked, and the video had farting noises added right when he was making those expressions. I did not realize that this video was a national sensation until I read about it on Wikipedia. Then I found the video on YouTube. It’s definitely worth watching; it’s hilarious.

Back in the early 1980’s, believe it or not, my wife and I got into selling life insurance. A.L. Williams was a former high school football coach that became disenchanted with life insurance after his mother died. After looking into the market, he eventually began selling term life insurance. You see, apparently whole life insurance, which was part insurance and part investment, had been a pretty good deal until the inflationary period of the 1970’s. Interest rates in most investments soared, but not for whole life insurance. Williams recognized this and started promoting the idea of “buy term, invest the difference”. This idea and a lot of hard work turned Williams into a multi-millionaire. He started a multi-level company that Kathy and I became a part of. I was shocked when one day I was listening to Jerry Falwell on TV and he mentioned A.L. Williams. He told the story about how Williams was visiting the campus of Liberty University. While touring the campus, they ran into the sports director for the school. Falwell introduced them. Williams, having been a football coach, asked the director what he needed for the school’s athletic program. The answer was a football field. So there on the spot Williams agreed to donate millions of dollars towards the building of a stadium. It’s still there and is called Williams Stadium.

I have watched Pat Robertson on his 700 Club show a fair amount. Robertson is quite a controversial person because of some of his radical political stances. Sometimes it appears that he even embarrasses his co-hosts. I always enjoyed listening to the stories the show presented of how a person was listening to the 700 Club and was healed of an illness. The stories seemed so legitimate, but I was always skeptical of their veracity. One interesting connection I have with Robertson is that he mentioned a friend of mine, Drew Jamieson, in his 1993 book “The Turning Tide”. More recently one of my wife’s former students married Robertson’s granddaughter. Small world, huh?

Although I have seen David Jeremiah on TV, I have mostly heard him on the radio. In fact, at one time my wife and I had our radio alarm set to play a local Christian station each weekday morning. David Jeremiah’s show was just coming on when the alarm went off. So, I heard a lot of his sermons, although a number of them were during an early morning sleep fog. Jeremiah is another one of those preachers that seem very confident in their message. However, it seemed to me that he often embellished the Biblical text with made up information. I was surprised when I was talking to the preacher at my wife’s church and discovered that he didn’t care for Jeremiah very much because of those embellishments.

Another TV evangelist worth mentioning is Peter Popoff. I never watched him on TV. In fact, I had never heard of him until I read James Randi’s book “Flim Flam”. James Randi is a magician (stage name of The Amazing Randi) who has spent a large portion of his life exposing frauds who claim they have some sort of supernatural or mystical powers. In fact, Randi has for many years offered a large sum of money to anyone who can demonstrate special powers without him being able to spot the trickery being used. So far no one has collected. Back in 1986, Randi set out to expose Peter Popoff. It seemed that Popoff had the ability to walk through an audience and tell people information about themselves including what ailments they had. Randi suspected that Popoff’s wife and the ushers were gathering information before a show and feeding it to Popoff via a transmitter. Randi was able to find the frequency they used and recorded what Popoff’s wife was saying to her husband. He later combined that recording with the video of the show so that anyone could see how he was using his wife’s information when speaking to audience members. Randi then appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and showed the merged video and audio.  Sixteen months later Popoff declared bankruptcy. Don’t you just love stories like that? But it seems that no matter how many of these shysters get exposed there are people willing to fall for yet another one. In many cases the ones who have been exposed make a comeback. Simply unbelievable.

One TV evangelist that I used to really enjoy was John Ankerberg. He was usually quite controversial, exposing what he considered to be fraudulent Christian teachers and groups. After I married Kathy I discovered that my father-in-law didn’t like Ankerberg at all. Why? Because Ankerberg was vehemently anti-Mason. I saw one of his shows where he exposed the supposed pagan rituals the Masons engaged in. But you see, my father-in-law was a Mason. And later one of his sons, my brother-in-law, became a Mason, and even became the Master of his local lodge. I was at the ceremony where he was inducted. So, here was yet once again an example of two people having a radically different view of what is Christian and what is not. Disconcerting to say the least.

I guess the most famous and most revered of the TV evangelists is Billy Graham. Who hasn’t seen one of his crusades on TV with George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art”, Cliff Barrows belting out tunes, Billy preaching the Gospel, and “Just As I Am” being sung as thousands of people made their way to the stage from far away seats? Graham is one of those rare people who were able to reach icon status in his field of endeavor. And he’s one of those clean honest guys that break the stereotypical mold of the greedy crooked evangelist that preys on the gullible.

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