Three Lives, Part 3: Oral Roberts (really?)
January 9, 2010

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.

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