Three Lives, Part 3: Oral Roberts (really?)

Oral with Elvis

It had been more than a decade since I last laid foot on the Oral Roberts University campus. I drove to Tulsa to visit some old friends, and while I was there I’d stop by the ORU library to return some *slightly* overdue books — 13 years overdue to be exact. As soon as I got into town I went straight to the library, dropped the books in the return slot in one stealth move and quickly shuffled off to wander around campus.  I made my way to Christ Chapel, where odd things like this frequently occurred (quite interesting from 3:45-5:00) —

And I was in Christ Chapel when other thing like this messed with me:

It was in Christ Chapel that I experienced a variety of moments that totally confused me, caused me to lose faith and feel spiritually inadequate, and even some moments of peace, so to say the place caused great tension in my life is an understatement. Christ Chapel at ORU was the birthplace of my doubt.

So as I sauntered up to the back doors of the chapel, I felt the tension coming back. I had grown and changed a lot since I was last there, but still the confused feelings from my college days flooded my mind. I paused at the 15-feet-tall doors and accepted the fact that they would probably be locked because it was summer and the campus was nearly empty. But something compelled me to grab the massive handle and tug on one door. It was unlocked. I pulled the door open just a crack and….

This is a weird piece to write because my thoughts are so conflicted. Let’s get back to Oral for a second. (If you’re not familiar with him, this 2-minute vid summarizes his controversial life and you can read how he’s relevant to my blog in my Definitions page under “Charismatic.”) It’s well-known that Oral was no stranger to controversy, and it’s no stretch to say he was narcissistic. It seems to me his ministry started out with sincere and loving intentions and a passion for helping people, but as he grew in popularity I think yes-men surrounded him, his ego swelled, and although his ministry impacted the world (for good or bad) his own world apparently included few more than himself. One notorious 1988 occasion had him locking himself in his Prayer Tower, which was sort of the epicenter of the campus and his ministry, and telling the world that God would kill him unless he raised millions of dollars (which he did).

Oral was one of if not the original televangelist, one of the first “faith-healers,” one of the fathers of the “prosperity gospel,” and the first person to effectively bring Pentecostalism beyond the realm of toothless Appalachian snake-handlers and into mainstream consciousness. He hosted people like Elvis, multiple presidents including JFK, and other mainstream celebrities on his show and on campus, and he garnered respect from thousands for his devotion to his God. From my experience, while he was definitely in his own wacky world, he apparently cared deeply about people and genuinely wanted to make the world a better place than what he found it. He wanted people to get relief from the poverty and sickness that he experienced growing up.

And he was determined as a jackass. How else could one man believe so deeply that he heard God tell him to build a university to educate men and women to positively impact the world…and then actually build it. (By the way, ORU is not just a seminary or place for training preachers; it’s a full university and Oral wanted desperately to see its medical school and cancer research center succeed.)

So when I was walking the halls of campus last summer, when I looked around and saw all those Jetsons-looking buildings, it was obvious that this empire of sorts was built by a visionary. And then I re-read the vision statement that was inscribed all over the place: “Build Me a university. Build it on My authority and on the Holy Spirit. Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is seen dim, My voice is heard small, and My healing power is not known, even to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased.” — That was what Oral believed he had heard straight from God’s mouth. I don’t know if he actually heard from God or whether he was a fraud, maybe a bit of both, but it’s apparent that he had good intentions and otherworldly motivation. He wanted to help the world. To be sure, he messed up some people, but he also helped some too.

So to see videos and posts throughout the web with people saying how terrible a person he was and such, while I don’t disagree with all of them, it makes me wonder what makes us think that we’re any better than him. We’re all fucked up. We all have our narcissistic days (whether we admit it or not). True, all of us don’t have the hearts and minds of thousands hanging onto our every word, but if I did, I bet I’d go a little crazy too. Regardless, even if he was a little off, he drove his ministry like a man who had, in fact, been somehow in touch with something beyond us, boldly making actions he knew no one would understand. This is why to some he is a prophet and to others he is a devil. To me? I have no idea what to say because all my experiences with him, his ministry, his family, and his university are filled with tension. Which brings me back to that summer day as I was about to open the doors to Christ Chapel:

Those memories came flooding back as I pulled the handle. Memories of some of the most confusing times in my life, the feelings of spiritual inadequacy because I couldn’t hear from God like others; I couldn’t feel God’s presence like others; I couldn’t believe what the Bible said, and I didn’t know how to pray. So I hated this place. Oral Roberts and his university were a scam. …And I felt the tension coming back….I pulled the door open just a crack and out came an incredibly peaceful sound. A welcoming sound of a single person calmly playing the piano in an empty chapel, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner. I opened the door wide and stepped inside. I felt welcomed by a special presence. I was surprised by how peaceful I felt. This did not sit well because it did not justify my angst. I felt like the place was just there, like a blank canvas waiting for whomever to do whatever they felt they needed to do to find peace. It had no judgments against me. And so I realized that maybe I was the one carrying the judgments, choosing to hold onto the confusion and restlessness. It wasn’t all Oral’s fault.

There is more to this story and it’s a long one. So I’ll end it here for now. I just have to say that I think Oral Roberts was one jacked-up mofo, and so is his son and his university. But he was also a human who tried to do good the best he knew how. He made it possible for me to get a degree because his university was the only type of school my parents would pay for. His ministry gave me insight into a segment of our society that is still often misunderstood, but a segment that nonetheless believes in something. Even though I cannot believe the same things Oral Roberts and the subculture he created believe in, you’ve got to give kudos to the guy at least for being true to what he thought was the direction he should go, at least he tried to do something positive with his life, which is more than many of us can say. And for that I can say, without any ill feelings, rest in peace, Oral Roberts.

Advertisements

5 Responses

  1. Fantastic, Dave. I finally got to read it. Thank you for sharing the link with me in the group. It definitely sounds like we wound up at the same place regarding our views of Oral. Messed up, but he fully believed what he was doing, and overcame humongous obstacles to accomplish it. I gotta give him props.

  2. That’s not just logic. That’s really ssienble.

  3. That holy laughter was some sick and twisted stuff. To this day I believe that is was pseudo demonic possession that occurred at these meetings.

  4. Dave – thanks for continuing to tell your story. I can relate, though our circumstances weren’t identical. A couple of years ago I was in a Western Civilization class where I had to read excerpts from Martin Luther’s “The Jews and Their Lies.” And I was absolutely FLOORED that he was such an anti-Semite. Here is a synopsis from Wikipedia:

    “In 1543 Luther published On the Jews and Their Lies in which he says that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.”[13] They are full of the “devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine.”[14] The synagogue was a “defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut …”[15] He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness,[16] afforded no legal protection,[17] and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.[18] He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[w]e are at fault in not slaying them.”[19]

    At the time I wanted to point and scream, “SEE? This is why we’re all so confused! How can such a hateful discourse come out of the father of the protestant movement? How can we build an entire religion on anything that came out of his mouth, when it was the same mouth that uttered this heinous anti-Semitic treatise? ” Luther is right up there with Augustine (on the protestant side) and the Pope (in the Catholic world.) I wanted to use this document as strong evidence that it is all a big fucked-up farce! I talked with my (non-believing) professor about it, and she said, “You know Laura, throughout history people have been a mixed-bag. They may do a lot of good, but they are also capable of really horrible things.” Ever since then I have been trying to make room for the possibility that the blatant evil doesn’t necessarily completely cancel out the good. I’m still not there, even though I know that I myself – as you pointed out – am a mixed bag. My reflex is to be intensely angry and resentful at the system that allows BUT NEVER ACKNOWLEDGES such discrepancies.

    • I hear ya, Laura. I knew some of Luther’s anti-semitism but had no idea it was to that extent and that blatant. The lack of acknowledgment of a lot of things is what I feel leads to most damage of all religious institutions. Acknowledgment only seems to come, if at all, when everything has died down and the dust has settled for up to centuries…only then do religious leaders come out and talk about. Whether it be the lack of acknowledgment of atrocities like molestation, bigotry and/or outright racism (as you mentioned with Luther), or even things as intangible as doubt. It’s amazing what bringing things out into the open for discussion does. One example that comes to mind is the recent release of Mother Teresa’s journals in which she confided about her serious doubts about God. People didn’t ridicule her for that…they admired her. I wish the religious would just come out into the open and be honest! Maybe then we could have meaningful dialogue. Of course I don’t mean coming out in the sense that we need more opinions blurted out (like your Luther examples…and like the example in the video I posted of Oral), but in the sense that the church should acknowledge that it too is a human institution built on a twisted mixture of uncertainty and pride. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: