The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Friday, September 28, 2007

Too Much Enthusiasm? Not Again.

I might be accused of being hyper-sensitive about the subject, and the accusation might even be well-founded, but I am stunned by the recent article in Time magazine which asks the question "Are Mega-Preachers Scandal-Prone?" Now at first blush, if you judge an article by its title, you might wonder what about that assertion impacts me. I don't even have a church, much less a mega-ministry. And I have been known myself to question the integrity of several mega-preachers, generally in private but sometimes in public too.

What raises my ire about the article is the fact that it implies, with the ready assistance of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that it is the Pentecostalism of these preachers that introduces the physical and emotional excess that leads to private misbehavior which eventuates in public exposure. Says Mohler, it is "so driven by emotion and by passion" that theological and moral accountability suffer. Thus, though discussing such figures as Swaggart, Bakker, White, and Bynum, who by virtue of their notoriety are hardly typical, the article manages to indict the whole Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.

Now any American religious historian, especially one who studies Pentecostalism as I do, will recognize immediately an argument as old as revivalism in this country. Whenever spiritual fervor has risen to the point where established denominations and authoritative persons cannot contain or control it, the charge of bodily excess and "enthusiasm" has always followed. The charismatic movement is no exception. Even within the history of Pentecostalism, theological debates and disagreements have often led to mudslinging accusations about the personal morality of the theological opponent. After Charles Parham's ouster from the Azusa Mission in 1907, he forever after accused Azusa-style Pentecostals of practicing "free love" and other acts of immorality, usually meaning illicit sex. His opponents, in turn, accused him of sodomy. None of this is new, but that doesn't make it accurate.

Let me expand on the point that Anthea Butler made in the same article, but that Time failed to emphasize, namely, that Pentecostals are no more scandal prone than other denominations. In fact, even the scandalous behavior noted in the article itself is commonplace, not only among Christian clergy but within society at large. Adultery and fiscal mismanagement, domestic violence, and divorce are not "mega-preacher things." The difference in these cases is that the preachers have a national following both before the allegations and after.

As a minister with Pentecostal heritage, but with a wide variety of experience and affiliation among Christian denominations, I am spending a lot of time lately trying to help non-Pentecostals have some accurate perspective on the Pentecostal movement. Time's reiteration of the worn-out thesis that too much emotional content makes religion dangerous and unaccountable does not help.

At the end of the day, being Pentecostal/Charismatic or anointed or in ministry, does not determine whether you will stay married, be faithful, or steal money. But being famous does mean that if you get caught, you'll have a scandal on top of everything else.

4 comments:

k said...

I appreciate your commentary on the Time article, you bring perspecitve and insight that is helpful.

Osiris said...

Your overview of this "Time" article was indeed insightful and thought provoking. I do envision however, the crux of what I concede to be one of the essential sources of this problematic woe; materialism. This is what happens when leaders tranquilize (and also become tranquilized by their own design of deception) the mass of congregates into thinking that God is a "Payout" and that their personal religiosity is the lottery (process). It stimulates a narcissistic contour that ultimately leads to degenerate physical gratification which encompasses every facet of daily life. It's really flipping Matthew 6:33 on its head. We should expect more scandals (be it media exposed or private) to surface when our eyes are on the wrong prize!

P.S...I'm one of Toby Sanders best friends and a huge admirer of your mental aptitude.

ÅnØmålî said...

I have also been deeply affected by this topic, especially considering how few of those close to me are Christian, let alone Pentecostal.

In my circle, especially among my more intellectual friends, Christians, and especially 'fanatical charismatics' are not very popular, in large part due to articles and perceptions like the one explored in your blog.

Thank you for sharing this. It was indeed thought provoking. I am grateful that I learned long ago (and am still actively learning in a more practical way) to keep my focus on things above and not on things below. Otherwise, I see how easily one might be deceived whenever a great leader falls prey to human nature and frailty because of failure to walk after spiritual things when their tangible circumstances improve.

And a special "AMEN!" to Osiris for his profound insights as well. Very well stated! I do indeed agree that we have created the perfect formula for scandal and failure within the mega churches and the church at large...

Until our focus shifts back to Christ...not church - the building, but Christ...not money, notoriety or positive public opinion, just Christ... Until we find ourselves trying our very best to emulate Him in all we say and do as our authentic, humble, transparent selves while relying on His nature, power and consciousness; I do believe this pattern will continue. Especially if our leaders do not do exactly what their titles imply: lead, and by example!

K E Alexander said...

Yeah...I could take this article apart on about a dozen different points. I will indulge in only a few: 1. Pentecostalism cannot be treated as a monolithic whole, especially not today. 2. Mohler's assessment reminds me of a repressionist Victorian ethic. In that kind of repression there are always dirty little secrets ("Victoria's Secret"). So the theory doesn't hold up. 3. The article denies reality of scandals in numerous other religious groups.

In response to the prosperity/success gospel is to blame. I think there is truth in this but more on a situational level, not as a formula. Remember, priests take vows of poverty and many of them have been involved in sex scandals.

I tend to see the problem as one related to holiness of heart.