Considering Oral Roberts

Ted Olsen has an article in today’s Christianity Today which seeks to correct the obituaries regarding Oral Roberts and his connection with the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” He cites Mark Silk and The New York Times as bad examples, and then writes the following:
But Silk and the Times may be confusing Roberts and another Tulsa resident, Kenneth Hagin, who is far more widely recognized as the man who joined Pentecostalism with the Faith Movement (also called "Word-Faith," or derogatively, the Prosperity Gospel or "Health and Wealth" gospel). Many scholars would credit Baptist E. W. Kenyon as the father of the teaching, and many other names would be more closely associated with it than Roberts (Kenneth Copeland, for example). The Dictionary of Christianity in America explicitly states that Roberts is "not fully identified with the movement [but] has close doctrinal and personal ties with many faith teachers." And in fact one of the first major critics of the Word-Faith movement was an Oral Roberts University theology professor, Charles Farah. (ORU's Howard Ervin was another vocal critic.)

Olsen is certainly right to complicate the overly simplistic connection between Roberts and the Word-Faith movement that prevails in mainstream media. And yet, a closer look at Olsen’s article complicates his thesis. Olsen himself goes on to complicate matters, and by the end, one is left wondering how exactly we should view Roberts vis-à-vis the Prosperity Gospel. This post is an attempt to clarify these matters. I should mention up front that I am not associated with Pentecostalism in any way, nor do I have any real knowledge of Roberts and his writings. I am simply offering some reflections on Olsen’s article.

To begin, we must note that Olsen only cites two obituaries. That hardly warrants the bold title: “Why the Oral Roberts Obituaries Are Wrong.” Maybe there are other obits which make this connection in an overly simplistic way; I don’t know. But based on the headline alone one gets the impression that everyone has misunderstood Roberts, and Olsen is here to set the world straight.

Second, Olsen’s article goes on to show that Roberts had a complicated relationship with the Word-Faith camp. While there is no direct causal relationship, there is certainly affinity. Citing David Edwin Harrell, Olsen writes that “Oral's beliefs ‘were not far from those of the moderate faith teachers,’ but argues that his identification with them was more in ‘a return to his cultural roots’ and had little to do with theology.” In pursuing mainstream respectability and legitimation, he later moved away from his Pentecostal roots and affiliated himself with the United Methodist Church. Later in life, however, he returned to Pentecostalism—and in full force. In the 1980s and beyond, Roberts was often indistinguishable from the Word-Faith televangelists, as his infamous “emotional blackmailing” in 1987 attests. (Olsen says that tying Roberts to the televangelism scandals is “somewhat inaccurate,” but isn’t this just another way of saying that Roberts is indirectly rather than directly connected to them?) This is where Olsen’s narrative begins to unravel. Essentially, he wants to make the last 30 years of Roberts’s life irrelevant for evaluating his legacy. Maybe there’s some basis for that, but any life-narrative which all-too-conveniently excludes the last third of a person’s existence is deeply suspect.

Third, and most importantly, Olsen fails to interrogate the theological relationship between Roberts and the Prosperity Gospel. While Harrell differentiates between their theologies, we need to look more carefully at this. I’ll admit again that I have not read Roberts’s theology, so I’ll stick to what I do know: that Roberts advocated the position that faith can and often does bring miraculous healing of the body, and that we should expect such healings within the church. While it may be true that Roberts did not personally preach that faith can also lead to monetary “healing,” are we supposed to buy in to the claim that the two are unrelated? Even if one does not necessarily lead to the other, can there be any doubt that the faith-healing position of Roberts opened the door to the Prosperity Gospel and made such a position viable within modern Pentecostalism?

A further historical point is worth making: both Roberts and the Word-Faith movement are modern derivations of the “new measures” movement inaugurated by Charles Finney in the Second Great Awakening. For the best account of this, see Ted Smith’s remarkable book, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice. Smith shows how Finney’s preaching was rooted in issues of respectability, novelty, individual autonomy, and cults of personality—all elements on full display in the life of Oral Roberts and the entire Word-Faith movement.

The deepest bond between them, however, is not historical or causal but rather theological. Both believe that the rewards of faith are to be experienced here and now within this present life. That is, both believe in a radically realized (or perhaps realizing) eschatology, and both believe that eschatological beatitude consists in temporal blessings and bodily perfection. To put it differently, both advocate a “theology of glory,” rather than a “theology of the cross.” Both seem to find their inspiration more in King Solomon than in Jesus of Nazareth.

At the end of the day, Olsen’s attempt to distance Roberts from the Prosperity Gospel feels forced. By contrast, the statement by the New York Times that Roberts was the “patriarch” of the Prosperity Gospel seems about right. He may not have directly brought the Word-Faith movement into existence, but he clearly laid the historical and theological foundation for its prosperity (no pun intended) within American Pentecostalism. And isn’t that what being a patriarch is all about?


stephy said…
I grew up near Oral Roberts University and those gigantic floating hands gave me nightmares.