Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Icon Passes

With the recent passing of Oral Roberts (1918-2009), I was reminded of the significant personalities that once impacted the religious landscape in my younger years. Growing up my parents would regularly tune into the Billy Graham (b. 1918) televised crusade, and like thousands of Americans had good Southern Baptist theology conveniently taught in our own living rooms. Graham, bar none, certainly ranks as one of the most influential religious figures of the previous century. Oral Roberts, while recognized today as "a towering figure in 20th century American Christianity" (AP, Eric Gorski, 12-16-09), failed to make much of an impression on my still very Lutheran family. He may have made Pentecostalism mainstream even before the Charismatic movement came into being, but it remained over the top for the religious tastes of the more staid Lutherans of the Midwest.

Other personalities, however, made greater and more positive impressions. Robert Schuller (b. 1926) and his Chrystal Cathedral brought the 'power of positive thinking' as a new gospel for Baby-boomers looking for 'religion lite.' D. James Kennedy (1930-2007), a conservative Presbyterian from Florida made his impression on Lutherans with his landmark Evangelism Explosion program, and also pulled off a very successful TV ministry for many years. Furthermore, Kennedy was one of the first to bring some literary substance to the newly discovered field of apologetics. Finally, one can hardly forget the forceful presence of Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) who married church and politics in a way previous generations would never have attempted. His "Old Time Gospel Hour" also provided a convenient conduit for Baptist theology to flow unhindered into many homes.

These men, in particular, defined the age in which they came in large part because they exploited, for good or ill, the newly discovered power of mass media, especially TV. Regardless of what we may say of their theology one can hardly dispute their mastery of persuasive public speaking. Pulpit craft for many years was influenced by their style, and I remember someone once telling me that Dr. Wallace Schultz even modeled his own speaking style after Billy Graham. Dr. Walter A. Maier, a pioneer in religious broadcasting on the radio airwaves, no doubt had his own influence which stretched far beyond the parochial boarders of the Lutheran church. Still, those who came later, and who undoubtedly built upon what he started, exploited the much more powerful medium of television, and remain now as giants in this field, far eclipsing those who came before.

Roberts, Falwell, and Kennedy, in particular, also exploited yet another area which guaranteed the perpetuation of their influence beyond their deaths. Each of these men was responsible for founding educational organizations that have evolved into well recognized and even well respected institutions of higher learning. Roberts, who completed only two years of college, founded the Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1963), the largest Charismatic university in the world. Falwell in turn also founded Liberty University in 1971, which is one of the largest Evangelical universities in the world today. Finally, Kennedy, the best educated of the group with an actual earned doctorate, founded Westminster Academy (1971) and Knox Theological Seminary (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) in 1989.

Three of the five men are now deceased, and the last two are retired. Graham at 91 is the same age as Roberts, and will certainly soon pass as well. An era has passed. Although it appeared at the time that their influence would produce family dynasties, it is now apparent that the progeny of the masters would never replace them or even measure up to them by the standards of that iconic era of TV evangelism. Robert Schuller was succeeded by his son, but his theology was too biblically based and too pop psychology lite for the father's taste, and was soon replaced by another. While the sons and daughters of the others have attempted to fill the gap of their fathers, they can never capture the charisma these men once had. Preaching continues, the universities grow and expand along with their various evangelistic organizations, but the era has come and gone.

Now we must deal with a new generation with such influences as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, among others, who like the icons of that former era continue to leave their mark on our Lutheran landscape. Their influence is great, spread now largely by books and tapes and a medium the giants of the past could only have dreamed of - the internet. In each era, therefore, faithful Lutheran pastors must remain vigilant to the powerful influences that invade the lives and homes of their flock. And in being aware he must be even more committed to teaching and preaching in a way that addresses these new errors.

P.S. Here are two posts by me that provide additional information on some of those mentioned above:
The Rev. Jerry Falwell Died Today at Age 73
Dr. D. James Kennedy Retires

1 comment:

Jeff said...

This is sad. From a Lutheran point of view, it sure looks like the Millennialists are winning.