- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

Evangelist Oral Roberts, who died Tuesday, had one big media footprint. There was his career in faith healing and his founding of a university, medical school and hospital, together with a dramatic flair for visions from God and a list of personal tragedies: the deaths of a daughter and son-in-law in a plane crash; the suicide of his elder son; the divorce of his surviving son, Richard; and the tell-all memoir by Richard’s estranged wife about Oral Roberts’ luxurious lifestyle.

It was never boring covering this man.

Then on Jan. 25, 1986, Mr. Roberts claimed God berated him for not sending his 192 medical students abroad as missionaries at a cost of $8 million. The evangelist began pleading for funds in mid-1986, but it wasn’t until the next January that he began saying that God would take him “home” if he didn’t raise the money.

Although donations poured in, criticism was scathing. Secular news stations threatened to dump his telecasts, and the Tulsa Tribune, his ordinarily sympathetic hometown paper, declared in a headline “Come off it, Oral.”

His do-or-die plea for funds in 1987 was the year when religion writers — I was at the Houston Chronicle at the time — could not stay off A1. In March, if it wasn’t Mr. Roberts saying God was going to take him “home,” it was Jim Bakker and the collapse of his PTL (Praise the Lord) empire because of his sexual dalliances. A month later, the wife of a prominent — and as it turned out, adulterous — Dallas Methodist minister was found nearly strangled in her home.

Pope John Paul II’s swing through the country a few months later was anti-climactic in comparison.

What never got mentioned is how Mr. Roberts’ dramatics — along with the PTL scandal and the fall of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart in 1988 — dealt a near-death blow to the charismatic renewal. That movement single-handedly brought America’s mainline denominations back to life after they went into hibernation because of the death-of-God movement in the 1960s.

Then the infusion of charismatic “gifts” of the Holy Spirit (such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues) into their worship services brought millions of Christians into a more vibrant faith. Today, Pentecostal-charismatic Christians number 400 million adherents worldwide.

But after the Bakker/Swaggart/Roberts imbroglios, I couldn’t get a Pentecostal or charismatic pastor to go on the record for months. Many were chagrined at how their most cherished beliefs were now fodder on the late-night comedy shows. They headed for the tall grass — and ended up starting “seeker-friendly” services that de-emphasized those embarrassing spiritual gifts.

Two decades passed, and a few months ago I came out with a book on the charismatic movement called “Days of Fire and Glory.” I’ve gotten reactions from people who act as though this is ancient history, not a movement that transformed world Christianity during most of their lifetimes. They want nothing to do with healing or miracles — the stuff that Oral Roberts was all about.

If his death does anything, it may remind people that only a supernatural Christianity has successfully challenged militant Islam and that Mr. Roberts’ life may be more relevant to them than they realize.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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