Friday, October 05, 2007

Oral's Not Moral

Whoever he is that, owing no man anything, and having food and raiment for himself and his household... seeks a still larger portion on earth; he lives in an open habitual denial of the Lord that bought him. - John Wesley

Prominent evangelicals are good at attracting three things: money, converts, and controversy (not necessarily in that order). Plenty of them have been tarred and feathered in the last few years and I decided a while ago to start giving them the benefit of the doubt when stories first broke, but this one's just plain weird.

The ruling dynasty of Oral Roberts University has run into trouble after a whole raft of allegations surfaced recently from some fired professors. On one occasion, the president's daughter and her friends flew the institution's jet to the Caribbean for a $30 000 vacation. The ministry picked up the tab on the grounds it was an "evangelistic function." I'm sure they just couldn't wait to spread the word to the beaches of the Bahamas. The Roberts' children also get exclusive use of a stable of horses owned by the school, as well as special tutoring time with university employees.

Many of the allegations feature the president's wife Lindsay, which ORU's website idiotically refers to as the "First Lady." For example, she billed in excess of $800 per month on her cell phone, in large part thanks to hundreds of late-night text messages to "underage males." She dropped $39 000 at Chico's in one year and later explained of her new clothing that "as long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off." She also has a red Mercedes and a white Lexus thanks to generous ministry donors.

This particular school has been weird from the beginning, though. The story goes that its founder, Oral Roberts himself, was approached directly by God with what seems to be a bizarre threat: raise $8 million to found a Christian university, or you will be "called home." Personally, I would have called God's bluff on that one. It would be a win-win situation, I'd think. Unfortunately, Oral took the coward's way out and raised the $8 million, which he wisely invested in building a corrupt but profitable estate for his descendants.

God recently proved he retains an interest in the academy by visiting the son, Richard Roberts, to deliver a new message: God wants him to publicly deny the accusations I've just recited above. Oh, good. I wonder whether Roberts would have felt confident in denying the accusations without divine instructions.

ORU is a charismatic university, which means we can expect it to be a little crazier. (By contrast, bible colleges like Pensacola College are non-charismatic, so they're still arrogant and self-righteous, but they don't speak in tongues.) It's home to some of the wickedest Christian architecture I've ever seen - for example, check out the enormous praying hands and the temple-like "learning centre", and other cool photographs on the Wikipedia page. The online tour here is a grand parade of self-absorbed largesse featuring the 60-foot-tall praying hands, a dormitory constructed in a style that supposedly "imitates" the trinity, a bunch of "Towers" modeled after the Star of David, a large geodesic dome symbolizing the "wholeness of man," the 200-foot-tall "Prayer Tower," a hideously large church supposedly representing the "shield of faith," and a three-level administration building. (Even this is significant: it's three levels because God is also three persons in one.)

With this amount of sheer idiocy, it's no wonder Christians get a bad rap sometimes. It may come as a surprise to many people, obviously including most of the students at ORU, that at one point in Christian history, all money and goods donated to the church were considered by sacred right to belong first to the poor and the oppressed. For the leadership of the church to take any of this collection to maintain buildings or to live on for themselves was, at best, a necessary evil; ideally, they would make their own living, or be provided for separately of money taken for the use of the church. I suspect we borrowed this tradition from the Jews, who didn't pay their rabbis out of the religious funds either, and, among the diaspora at least, saw giving to the poor as the appropriate substitute for sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, if we spent money like that, we wouldn't have giant praying hands and enormous prayer towers. I'm sure God appreciates what we've done for him.

I re-read the ten commandments a while ago and it struck me that the interpretation of taking the Lord's name in vain that was drilled into me as a teenager is all wrong. I'm sure you're familiar with the idea: it's wrong to say "Oh, God" when you're having sex, or to say "God damn it" when you're upset with something -- for example, "God damn Oral Roberts University."

I don't think that's true. For one thing, asking God to damn something seems perfectly legitimate to me - provided it's something worth damning. More importantly, I believe that we take God's name in vain every time we falsely attribute something to him because we think it will sound more credible. "God has helped me get this job," for example - or, "I feel the Spirit is calling me to move on," which is what most pastors say when they leave one job and move to a better-paying one farther south. (In some parts of the world, it might not necessarily be farther south - but it always was for me, because I come from the pagan north.)

Bravo, Roberts family. You've founded a university, bilked hundreds of millions of dollars from people who put their trust in you, and made a mockery of your supposed faith. There's less you could do in a lifetime.