Back in the 1980’s, my parents were supporters of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL ministries. As a matter of fact we stayed at the Bakker’s Heritage USA site twice, enjoying the waterpark and attending tapings of the PTL Club. I even appeared in one of the camera pans across the audience. It seemed wonderful, magical, and just a little false.
It as built out in the middle of nowhere, and while there was a drought on, the managed to keep the waterpark going and water all of the plants at the facility. It was a place humming with excitement, as there always was another project to build for, and of course to raise money for. It struck my teenaged brain as odd that they never seemed to finish a project before launching into the next one.
It became easy to lampoon the Bakkers, especially once their ministry collapsed amid according irregularities and sordid tales of sex. This is why I found the below article so fascinating, by placing them within the arc of the American religious experience, and our strong temptation to Gnosticism.
Most of this follows from the uniquely American solution the problem of competing religious faiths: privatization. By making religious truth a matter for individual conscience, we cut out a cause for civic strife, but we also placed the center of all knowledge within ourselves. We chose what was right and wrong. And this narrative structure has come to dominate American thinking about religion and ideas in general. We seek conversion, rejecting whatever surrounded us before, and making a definite commitment, preferably throwing off the “shackles” of the past.
The strong emphasis on a personal encounter with God, a core element of both Puritanism and Evangelicalism, grounded in a well of experience, is a powerful story. But these all revolve around the self. Without a sense of sin and it’s effects, it is all too easy to name ourselves as the arbiter of God. Spiritual growth becomes self improvement. Unleash the power within. Master the secrets and become like God. The sin of Adam and Even becomes the fulfillment of the truth within.
“The heart is deceitful more than anything else, and it is disastrous. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (LEB)