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A Climb to the Peak of the Pentecostal Pyramid

December 30, 1985|RUSSELL CHANDLER | Times Staff Writer and Chandler covers news of religion for The Times. and

Oral Roberts: An American Life by David Edwin Harrell Jr. (Indiana University: $24.95)

Speaking about the evangelical Christian book market, author David Edwin Harrell, chairman of the history department at the University of Alabama, observed that a preponderance of the books "express the delicious tension of people who are living with deep convictions--but also living in the world."

In a nutshell, that's how Harrell's own book, billed as a scholarly biography of evangelist Oral Roberts, sums up the life and times of faith healing's First Family. There is the apparent "heavenly vision." And there is the conspicuous appearance of personal power and wealth--the "pragmatic underside" of the ministry.

This is a ponderous work, with more than 100 pages of cumbersome footnotes, and sometimes repetitious detail. But Harrell makes a determined, and often insightful, excursion into nearly every nook and cranny of Roberts' life and ministry. His goal is to prove the opening assertion of the book that the Oklahoma preacher "has influenced the course of modern Christianity as profoundly as any American religious leader."

Harrell came to the task with a scholar's perception, and, he says, without preconceived bias. And with an earlier, related book under his belt: "All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America."

"Oral Roberts: An American Life" is organized into logical, manageable sections: The Mold, which describes the Roberts family roots and Oral's rise as an evangelist and pastor following his now-famed account of healing from tuberculosis; Miracles, a section on the tent revival days between 1947 and 1960; Mainstream, detailing the evangelist's movement towards mainline denominational acceptance and the building of his university in Tulsa, and Maelstrom, an account of Roberts' vision and subsequent construction of the City of Faith medical complex and the myriad attendant problems.

The final section, Meanings, brings the Roberts story up to 1985 and contains Harrell's assessment of Oral, his message and controversial ministry.

There are two stories here: the growth of the vast, multimillion-dollar Roberts organizations, and the saga of the triumphs and tragedies of the tight-knit Roberts family. Harrell accurately portrays both. He shows how Oral, inextricably earthy and ethereal, is driven by the "direct voice of God"--as Roberts perceives him. And that, more than anything else, is what has most alienated the evangelist from the outside world, Harrell plentifully documents.

Touches of Good Writing

There are touches of good writing here, as well as flashes of explanation that take the reader beyond superficial analyses of Roberts as either the consummate con man or the quintessential oracle of Jesus Christ.

Harrell describes the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Assn. as "the cockpit of the entire Roberts empire," and notes that during the heydays of the 1960s and 1970s, his movement "rippled throughout the nation and the world. The small and the great stopped to listen to Oral Roberts. Some of them believed what he said."

Harrell knows where the bodies lie in Roberts' scrappy climb to the peak of the Pentecostal pyramid. And he doesn't hesitate to quote Oral's detractors, particularly reporters and disaffected Roberts staff, who typically retain a "love-hate" relationship with their former mentor.

"When the backslapping was over and the vials of vituperation had been emptied, when both friends and foes had had their say, to be a partner with Oral Roberts was to believe he spoke the truth," Harrell writes.

Serious Weaknesses

But there are several serious weaknesses in a book that attempts to depict the compleat Oral Roberts. Harrell concedes that he was not allowed to see financial records of either Roberts or his organizations, nor did he examine the voluminous case histories of apparent healings. Harrell says this was no "major liability." I strongly disagree. The book is also marred by spelling errors and mistakes in footnote dating.

Further, though the author combed the Roberts' archives for nearly five months, he spent a total of only six hours interviewing Oral Roberts in three sessions. He had but three interviews with Evelyn Roberts, the evangelist's wife--who nonetheless "read the manuscript as it progressed." Harrell frankly admits that, though he does not share Roberts' theology, he admires him and judges him "to be a sincere and honorable man."

While Harrell's efforts to be even-handed and objective are laudable, his uncritical reporting--particularly not challenging, or at least not questioning, many of Roberts' assumptions--fairly begs for deeper penetration. This is not the "whole story," as Harrell claims.

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