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Knowledge & News
Thought provoking topics and series, necessary news and information.
We all know that week or two before the fall semester begins. Students are prepping to pack up and go back to school and schools are gearing up for the onslaught. In a rare occurrence, my mom, my aunt and my two cousins were all able to meet me for lunch at Santorini’s in downtown DeLand before the elder of the two cousins left for her junior year of college. Following our lunch meeting, I spent a little more time with my mom at a couple of the neighboring shops. Inside the second shop, loud music was blaring from a CD player. The music was jazzy and upbeat; my mom commented that the music sounded cool. Soon though a woman’s voice echoed as she sang, “My money is like a bunny and it goes out and multiplies.” I’m pretty sure I made a face, but I continued to listen as she sang about how God is the source of her money. I’ve heard my share of bad Christian pop music, but I had never heard prosperity gospel music before. I found it irksome, to say the least.
You’re probably wondering where this is going, but this occurred only a few days before both Collective kicked off its annual pledge drive and John Oliver dropped the hammer—and the mic—on the predatory behaviors of prosperity gospel slinging televangelists. It was like life was preparing me to say something. Then Ben asked me to write this blog, so here we are.
Now, Ben has already brilliantly covered much of Oliver’s televangelical takedown, but both his words and those of the Last Week Tonight host echo things I’ve thought for some time. I grew up with a grandma who would buy me everything I wanted from the CBD—Christian Book Distributers—catalog. I’m not just talking books. I had Super 3D Noah’s Ark for my Super Nintendo and a collection of Bible hero trading cards. When I got older, the Holy Land Experience opened in Orlando and my private Christian high school took a field trip there. They had appropriately themed foods to eat and gift shops selling things like necklaces made out of supposedly authentic “widow’s mites.” Although these objects and experiences might bring some closer to how they identify as a Christian, for me they only served to further alienate me from big box organized religion over time.
That said, part of me still understands—and doesn’t even really object to—this practice. Sure, it can feel forced and insincere, but it’s ultimately like a paper cut compared to the severed limb that the televangelists like Gloria Copeland and Creflo Dollar represent here. I say this because the stuff I was just talking about goes hand in hand with the spiritual pyramid scheme that drives television ministry. The grandma who spoiled me with gifts from the Christian book catalog also actively sent money to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker back in the 1980s. For those unfamiliar, the Bakkers were the biggest names in televangelism back then, but a series of financial and sexual scandals ended their reign. Who would have guessed that these set ups would give way to corruption? Oh… wait.
"Although these experiences might bring some closer to how they identify as a Christian, for me they only served to further alienate me from big box organized religion over time."
From what I’ve heard, the kinds of things my grandmother received from the Bakkers weren’t entirely unlike the mountain of letters and demands asked of Oliver in his correspondence with another scandalous relic of television ministry, Robert Tilton. Following an experimental donation of 20 dollars, Oliver received a string of bizarre requests and demands made of him by Tilton’s ministry. They include being mailed dollar bills, colored oil packets, and prayer cloths with demands they be returned in the company of seemingly random sums of money. Eventually, Oliver coughed up over 300 dollars in this experiment. These letter rituals continued, but Oliver has the good fortune of not actually believing in this nonsense. In addition, he could afford to continue paying if he did.
Tilton, like the Bakkers, fell under deserved scrutiny during the height of his ministry—these people scrounge their way out of the gutter to try the whole thing all over again. The existing checks and balances just don’t stop these predators from continuing to thrive on the misplaced faith and finances of sincere Christian believers.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Our Lady received a substantial number of donations in the past few weeks. However, as of last Sunday, the church is no more. As Oliver explains in a statement found on the website—and available in an expanded audio version when you call 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL—the church did not shutter its doors over any legal reason, since promising people great riches if they send you money is still fine and dandy. Nope. Apparently people hear the phrases “seed faith” and “donation” and think sperm in the mail is the way to go. Who can blame Oliver for wanting to extricate himself from such a sticky situation? All kidding aside, the money donated to Our Lady changed hands a second time upon the church’s closure. You might be wondering if it was used to score a private jet or finance a lifetime supply of televangelist worthy teeth whitening strips, but the funds raised will instead be directed to Doctors without Borders.
"Collective is transparent.... It’s not a donation towards a huckster’s cure-all for your brokenness, which is why I feel comfortable budgeting out some money each month."
Ultimately, Oliver’s church did some genuine good on multiple levels: it got us blogging, it got other people talking policy reform, and it got a great organization some extra cash. While you certainly can’t say calls for private jet money aren’t transparent, I find the donation to Doctors without Borders indicative of the kind of meaningful transparency practiced at Collective. When Ben delivers a sermon, he makes no false promises. When we sit in a room together to pray or meditate, it’s not with the expectation that a nearby friend with cancer will be immediately cured by our efforts (or by a bandage made of dollar bills). The message, although challenging, is still somehow clear. Budgets, hardly a strong point of my own still fledgling life as an adult, can be as convoluted and messy as theology, but Collective is transparent about that too. It’s not a donation towards a huckster’s cure-all for your brokenness, which is why I feel comfortable budgeting out some money each month, when the thought of sending Tilton and the like a single penny makes my skin crawl.
By Kenny Lane
We are a misfit faith community that gathers in DeLand on Sundays at 5pm. Come as you are.
We value highly the metaphor of journey. We’re different people from different places and backgrounds, representing an intergenerational community, and we’ve traveled different paths. So, we agree not to make assumptions about the person across from us, next to us, or in conversation with us. We challenge ourselves to be sensitive, knowing this community includes a diverse group of people from life-long followers of Jesus, to people who are just now open to the idea that God might exist. We strive to avoid offense, ask good questions, articulate and explain our responses. We don’t assume fluency in bible, spirituality, or Church language, because we believe the message of Jesus is not for Christianity, but for humanity. So, we do everything in the spirit of love and grace.
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