Oral Roberts lived and believed in the American dream. He was also a devoted Christian. The tension between the two is a good predictor of the successes and failures of an important American and Christian life. Roberts was a complex man who lived a long time and it would be unfortunate if he only receives hagiography or dismissal.
Roberts did much that was good, but it came at a very high theological and intellectual price. Roberts was born in the lower middle class, never graduated from college, but founded a fully accredited university. With little training, he launched a highly successful television franchise and changed the reputation of Pentecostalism in America and helped bring “Spirit-led” worship to a new generation. Sadly, Roberts also introduced some very bad theological ideas into the bloodstream of that same movement.
Roberts was born in 1918 in rural Oklahoma and died in 2009 in Newport Beach, California. He tracked the movement of many American in his generation from relative poverty to comfort in the Golden West. His American populism was his most attractive feature, but an inherent disdain for elites led to his problems. Roberts understood the changes that were going on in the culture and was able to negotiate the relationship between his faith and those changes, but often the integration was overly shallow.
Oral Roberts had a vision for education that has served thousands of students and will serve thousands more. However, Roberts failed to learn from the responsible scholarship of people he helped educate as his ministry grew and demanded more resources. Ironically, the good works of Roberts in educating Pentecostals undercut support for his less responsible theological pronouncements within mainstream Pentecostalism.
There is no justification for the “seed faith” theology that Roberts helped mainstream. It is bad theology, bad philosophy, and does not work in the real world. Seed faith theology is based on the proper idea that giving is better than receiving. As the Catholic Church discovered to its shame in the late Middle Ages, people eager to make a buck easily can twist this truth. If you work for a charity, there is a fine line between urging people to give to good works and urging them to give to you.
Seed faith theology pushed past historic warnings about these problems. It also went further and began to treat the blessings of God as a mechanism. God, in good American fashion, was reduced to a slot machine dispensing blessings after the proper input.
Roberts knew that the God of the Bible did not hate prosperity or pleasure. He desired good things for His children and Roberts rightly saw that some forms of American Christianity had forgotten this truth. Roberts was correct in preaching that in Christ “something good was going to happen to you” and that God was a God of second chances.
Sadly, this idea too can suffer abuse when it is not matched by the counterbalancing truth that God wants us to grow up and to learn. Our ultimate reward is not, after all, in this life. While God is not opposed to prosperity, not all good things are good for us. It is also all too easy (as many of us know) to slide from a proper condemnation of puritanical killjoys to a lax love of money.
Many ministries that followed Roberts’ had even less checks and balances in their teaching than he did. Globally the “seed faith” theology has done significant harm. Roberts bears some responsibility for not recognizing these dangers.
Like many Americans, Roberts wanted the benefits of modernity, but failed to see the downsides. He should be credited for recognizing the possible educational and religious benefits of the new media of his day. His life is a warning that uncritical use of that media can change a ministry more than the ministry changes the media.
Roberts’ television programming, recordings, and music gave hope and comfort to millions of Americans. They encouraged millions to develop the habits and personal characteristics that made them better citizens and Christians. Thousands gave up destructive habits such as drug use and thousands more salvaged marriages and relationships.
If Roberts raised money, he did not do so from unwilling people, but from millions of folks who enjoyed his programming and benefited from his ministry. We insult them if we stereotype all of them as “exploited” or “conned.” Roberts gave more than he got to most of his audience.
Oral Roberts took Pentecostalism from poverty to lower-middle-class almost respectability, but he could never cross the last barriers to social acceptance. Partly that was the result of the class and intellectual prejudices of the world in which he ministered. Mostly, it was because Roberts moved away from the “cutting edge” of change and growth. The Oral Robert’s style evolved rapidly from the fifties to the seventies, but then stopped changing. By the now risible standards of the seventies, Roberts made fairly mainstream television and was effective, but the standards changed and Roberts did not.
His theology and philosophy did not adapt well to a new age and he left his ministries in incapable hands. Shallow theology and an overemphasis on the charismatic leader leave a ministry too pliable where it should be strong and not adaptable where it should change.
Fortunately, it appears his University will be saved to continue the best part of Roberts’ work. I know people who teach at Oral Roberts University and it is a fine school that continues to improve and build on the best part of Roberts’ legacy.
Roberts early recognized the need to minister to the whole person. Roberts wanted to bring healing to the masses and I personally have known people who found God, comfort, and healing through his ministry. In a time when Christianity had become too glum, his cheerful proclamation that Christians could be happy was a needed balance for many.
The ORU singers cheered up many an overly grim Christian by reminding them that they “were more than conquerors.”
Oral Roberts insightfully rejected a low view of the body. His failed medical school was part of a noble vision to minister to the whole person. This integrative educational approach continues as a hallmark of Oral Roberts University and is a good legacy for Oral Roberts. As heterodox as “seed faith” theology was, there is much to be learned from the holism of Oral Roberts in caring for body, soul, and mind.
I suspect that it is the good idea, enshrined at ORU, that will live and that the heresies that cluster around “giving to get” will die.
Money and how to deal with it in a booming nation was the problem for the Roberts’ legacy from the beginning and right to the end. Money is easy to get in America if you have the right talents, and Oral Roberts would have grown rich in many fields with his abundances of raw intellect, charm, and work ethic, but it is a great danger.
America teaches that you can never be too rich and Christianity teaches that a rich man will find it difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a tension for anyone who lives in the United States. Free markets are, on the whole, the best for most people, but they are not the greatest good for Christians.
Roberts had a deep and persistent interest in helping the poor in his ministry and personally. He was committed to making college, private college, affordable to many of them, but his own lifestyle often undercut his ideals or caused many to question his integrity. He never solved this contradiction, but then the nation that birthed him has never solved its own contradictions with money.
We are the most generous and charitable nation in human history, but we squander billions on self-indulgent behaviors. We resent the rich, but ape their lifestyles using credit cards. We are populist would be plutocrats.
Jesus never let Oral Roberts down and inspired good works that will live on in Oral Roberts University and in lives he personally aided, but America and American Christianity did let him down. We did not give Roberts an adequate vision of the relationship between technology and personhood or between freedom and personal responsibility.
Like so many Americans, Roberts lived a wonderful life, but like so many American Christians, it is also a cautionary tale.