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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Oral Tradition

When Oral Roberts died last week, every obituary that i noticed referred to him as "a pioneering televangelist." This is accurate but a little unfair, since it makes him sound as if he could be neatly bracketed in the same category as Falwell and Jim and Tammy and the others who used the TV pulpit to cash in or reach for political power starting in the late 1970s and 1980s. Oral actually came from, and always kept one foot in, an older tent show tradition, and though he went into TV and used it as a money-raising tool with a vengeance, he was always a lot weirder, and, I suspect, considerably more sincere in his beliefs than people like the bullying demagogue Falwell or Jim and Tammy when they were on their crusade to make everything nice-nice. The missing link in the evolution of the TV preacher is Billy Graham, who, so far as I remember, never had a regular Sunday broadcast but barnstormed the country via the airwaves with his periodic TV specials. Reviewing one of them back in the early '70s, when Billy was joined at the hip to President Nixon, Nicholas von Hoffman wrote that the assembled crowd "looked like the Republican party at prayer." (Billy, too, always struck me as sincere, and he proved it, and at the same time revealed the confused priorities and awesome naivete that went with that sincerity, when the transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes were released and inspired Billy to express disillusionment over the news that the Quaker President had such a potty mouth.) Billy is still alive at 91, the advanced age at which Oral died. Falwell and Tammy Faye Bakker died much younger, a statistic that I am not inclined to interpret as meaning that the good lord was in more of a hurry to welcome him into his heavenly family.

Von Hoffman's words were prescient: it does seem as if the true religious faith of most of the modern televangelist faithful is that of the Republican party. Oral was a Pentecostal, a strange race that the people at my old Southern Baptist church used to appreciate because they gave us somebody else to point at as the real weirdos. (Billy Graham is Southern Baptist, but in his salad days he represented that faith before it became a fully owned subsidiary of the GOP.) As a Pentecostal, Oral spoke in tongues, praying every day with his wife in a mysterious, divinely inspired language that was half Captain Beefheart, half Teletubbies, usually delivered in the lyrical tones of someone who's just caught his dick in his zipper. Oral, who gave himself over to God after he had been divinely cured of what some back country sawbones had diagnosed as a terminal case of TB, was ten years into his preaching career when he found that he himself had the power to heal the sick and raise the dead with his right hand. Oral, who wrote autobiographies like Li'l Wayne drops mixtapes, was given to reminiscing about the many times that he resurrected dead people at his live shows. You might wonder what the dead people were doing there, but it seems that, perhaps because of his awesome charisma, adults and children had a startling tendency to breathe their last while he was onstage. Oral once explained that he hated to show off like that but that having someone drop dead in the middle of a show can be very distracting and that he found it necessary to resurrect them so that he could continue to deliver the Lord's word.

It was Oral the raving bull goose loony whose image was preserved for all time by Lenny Bruce in his epic "Religions, Inc." routine ("Thank you very much! Thank you, boy, here, have a snake!"). A milestone in Bruce's career and the history of stand-up comedy itself, it depicted Oral as a cynical religious con man with contempt for the "thick rednecks" who were his natural audience, which stands to reason, since Bruce's most fertile approach as a satirist was always to describe the powerful and respected as if they were just another bunch of nightclub performers who'd come up from working in strip clubs and toilets and hustled aluminum siding between gigs. It's most prescient when it caricatures the rage that the self-made man (and woman, Sarah) feels at the brainy types who would dare to patronize him for his lack of book learnin'. "Go ahead, laugh at him," Bruce's Oral says to the straw men he's sure must think the worst of him. "There's a dummy! Ha ha ha ha! I'm a dummmy. Yes, I'm dumb, I got two Lincoln Continentals, that's how goddamn dumb I am. I'm dumber'n hell, I don't know how much a whole lot of nines are!" The supreme skeptic Martin Gardner once wrote of Oral, "Insecure feelings about his early poverty and lack of education mix with an awesome ego. Oral will never consider that when he hears the voice of God he is listening to himself, that when he builds a bigger monument it is a monument to himself. His visions are too childish to be fabrications."

It was the monument building that would lead to the biggest splash of bad publicity that Oral had to suffer through in his dotage. In 1977, he was visited by a 900-foot Jesus who instructed him to build an enormous hospital amd medical research center in his home base of Tulsa, for the express purpose of finding the cure for cancer. The City of Faith Medical and Research Center proved to be a huge boondoggle, and early in 1987, hurting for money to keep it open, Oral informed his television audience that God had told him that if he didn't raise eight million dollars by March, He, God, would "call you home." Lenny Bruce, had he lived to see that moment, would have thought that all his Christmases were coming at once. At the time I was working at a college theater in Louisiana, and one day I walked into the green room where everybody hung out and drew assignments to see that somebody had erected an Oral Roberts Countdown Calendar to help us keep track of the slow march towards the inevitable. In the end, the inevitable was called off by an owner of dog race tracks in Florida, who wrote Oral a check because, he told reporters, he was afraid that if the old boy didn't make his nut he might hurt himself. It turned out to be the first match struck in a string of televangelists self-immolating themselves that went on for over a year, including the scandal that wiped out the Bakkers, Falwell's embarrassing attempt to publicly lend them a hand, Jimmy Swaggart's on-air confession of having let lust get the better of him on Airline Highway, and the circus of Pat Robertson's run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Most secular-minded people my age probably remember that incident better than anything else about Oral, and coming as part of that whole tabloid supernova, it probably confirmed most of them in their assumption that one religious blowhard with an electronic collection place is pretty much the same as any other. I don't really want to defend Oral, and I'd hate to seem to be engaging in some kind of gonzo nostalgia and claiming that they don't make mercenary religious nuts the way they used to. But I do think the old boy deserves a little better than to be lumped in with the Falwells and the Bakkers and the Robertsons. Part of it has to do with the sincerity issue, and part of it is that I can't imagine him every having been anything but a self-promoting religious fruitcake, whereas the Bakkers, say, might have found a measure of modest happiness if they'd settled for working a children's puppet show on local TV somewhere and kept God out of it, while Falwell was either born too late or too early, and should really have been either a backroom political kingmaker of the old school or a right wing radio gas bag who could have provided Rush Limbaugh with a little early competition. (Oral's son Richard Roberts, a would-be Vegas crooner turned faith healer and chairman and chief executive officer of the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, has never tried very hard to seem to be anything but a guy working in the family business.)

But I'll say this for Oral: even as he was obliged to keep his glossolalia and resurrections out of camera range as he courted respectability later in his career, he never tried to seem like anything but a towering weirdo. Falwell and the other preachers who meddled in politics as part of the emerging religious right wanted to re-shape the country and have themselves officially recognized as the models for American Normal. Roberts didn't want or try to be normal, and he didn't try to change the world in his image; that would have limited his own specialness, and maybe the thought of a whole country of people in bad suits running around speaking in tongues even freaked him out a little. Americans, Werner Herzog once said, are the most exotic people in the world, because they think they're normal. I have no idea how much actual good Oral Roberts accomplished during his stay on Earth--and faith healers, people who convince people who may be really sick that need to get right with God more than they need to see a doctor, invariably leave a lot of damage in their wake. But at least he could die with the knowledge that he was perhaps the last person in his profession who recognized the obvious truth that a man of God, rather than fitting in too cozily with the most well-heeled and respectable members of society, ought to be something of a lunatic. Babble us out of here, Oral!

bragh neigh klery gheryik bhaery ghery...


j said...

I believe Billy Graham is, or was originally, PCUS. The area of North Carolina from whence he hails is traditionally Presbyterian. You are from the south? My bad- I assumed :(
Remember: Something GOOD is going to happen to YOU!

Phil Nugent said...

Thanks a lot. Now I'm going to have that theme song stuck in my head all day. ("Something gooood is goooing to hap-pen to you, each and every day, each and every day...")

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Discovered via a link from Scott McLemee, I link to it and recommend it very highly on my own blog. This is an obituary Oral Roberts could be proud of, I think, in an odd way.

Tehanu said...

Another keeper post, Phil -- and I speak as someone who knew Captain Beefheart pretty well back in the day.

Oh, and merry Christmas to you.

Anonymous said...

great, great post.

but i'm thinking this is a typo?
"one religious blowhard with an electronic collection place"

s/b "collection plate"?

kid bitzer

John J said...

One thing Oral did to court a kind of respectability was to found Oral Roberts University. However, that effort sort of came to grief, since his son Richard had to resign in disgrace as university president (for misusing funds), and the school seems to be fighting to stay afloat financially. So your point pretty much holds.

This discussion spurred me to check to consult that font of religious scholarship, Wikipedia, where I learned that Michelle Bachmann and Ted Haggard are both graduates of Oral Roberts U. (!), and that Billy Graham is a Southern Baptist although has some Presbyterian influence in his past.

Urban Garlic said...

OK, I'm a bit late to this party, but this is great stuff. I went to a Billy Graham show in the mid-1980s, at the insistence of some religiously-inclined friends of mine, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I share your impression that he was sincere, and his sermon that day was about non-political Christian themes, about charity and commitment, and the meaning of redemption here and hereafter.

I didn't join up, but I had a much better idea of why someone might want to.