Monday, September 21, 2009

Where I win an award and Minnesota part 2

In the past month, I've been to Minnesota twice, once to cover the Lutherans and the other to attend a Religion Newswriters Association contest where I picked up two very nice awards on Sept. 12. The WTimes just ran a piece today announcing the awards (a week late but oh well) which looks fairly nice. It was not the first time I had placed second in the Religion Reporter of the Year award - I also came in second 20 years ago. NOW if I can only place first...
My brief four days in Minnesota ran into a spell of nice, warm weather and of course that is when I had my book launch party. I am just at the beginning of getting word out about "Days of Fire and Glory" but when I show up at various venues, people are quick to grab it. It sells out before "Quitting Church" does.
My final days in Minnesota, by the way, were quite pleasant. Veeka and I spent a week at the Trapper's Lodge on Leech Lake, which was quite lovely. We found lots of things to do, so I have posted photos of Veeka by the lake, Veeka actually catching a fish (she had no idea what to do with it) and of course Veeka standing by a large blue ox, which is the local symbol up there. So I have been reading her tales of Paul Bunyan and explaining to her what an "ox" is. Can't say we have those in Maryland, especially of the large blue variety. We spent one day in Itasca State Park, where the headwaters of the Mississippi are; that is one lovely area with tons of lakes and white birch trees. We even went biking (with her in a little cart behind my bike) but the mosquitos ate us up. I spent one evening near Bemidji at Ben Israel, a Christian community about which I wrote this column a few days later.
On our last day, we arrived back in the Twin Cities just in time for a Hinnenthal family barbecue hosted by Beth and Chris, so we got to see everyone once again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My book is finally out!

I am here in Minneapolis, the day after my book launch party at the downtown Marriott. It was a lovely time - in a 31st-floor suite with a view of I-94. I'd say about 30 people, including some of my Minneapolis-area relatives showed up for a nice event showcasing work by Joe Rigert - a former AP reporter who wrote a book about abusive Irish Catholic priests - and myself. "Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community" has been in process 20 years and it's such a triumph for me to have the hardback in hand - finally!! It has been such a long road with so many disappointments but I hung in there and hung in there and....well, here is the Amazon link to what I think will be the best book I will ever write.
I am also including the wonderful cover with a fabulous photo by Debbie Scott of Graham Pulkingham - the iconic priest whom the book portrays - in the middle celebrating the Eucharist. Everyone's hands are raised in praise; it's a high point of the liturgy. I cannot be happy enough about this; if there was any problem with the launch party, it was that I didn't buy enough wine for all those thirsty reporters. Instead of having it be an event where everyone stood around and had mini-conversations, I instead set Joe and I in the middle of things and we led a fascinating discussion on what makes some religious movements fail. It was invigorating and will hopefully lead to some nice reviews.
For those of you who wonder what this book is about, I am attaching material from a press release. Please enjoy and...order the thing!

"Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community" is about one of the most gifted leaders of the charismatic movement and the newspaper reporter who unwittingly unearthed his secret.

Millions of evangelical Christians who lived through the Jesus movement and the charismatic renewal of the 1970s and 1980s wish to process what happened them in the early days of their faith. Some even moved into Christian community households to replicate the pattern of the early church in Acts 2. Many are seeking to regain the spiritual power and assurance they felt during those days. Still others have watched how this pentecostal subset of American life went mainstream beginning in the year 2000, penetrating even to the core of the White House and even becoming an issue during the 2008 election in the person of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
"Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community" is the story of God, sex and power, how a huge 20th century religious experiment in the life of one cleric led to the rise and fall of many. The author, Julia Duin, is the award-winning religion editor of the Washington Times and the author of five books. She worked for the Houston Chronicle from 1986-1990.

Her book traces the journey of Graham Pulkingham, an Episcopal priest who led Church of the Redeemer, one of the nation's fastest growing and most vibrant churches in a Houston slum and left a legacy that lasts to this day. He held thousands spellbound with his Gospel preaching and influenced millions with his daring vision of a compelling, charismatic Christianity made visible by a system of worldwide communities. Yet, Pulkingham hid from his followers a dark double life that he at first resisted, then secretly pursued and finally allowed to twist his personal theology into a gordian knot of accommodation and self-deceit and finally death.

Twenty years ago, Miss Duin, then a Houston Chronicle reporter, set out to do a laudatory account of events at Redeemer, only to discover the hidden sins not only of one Houston church but of an entire movement.

At its heights, Church of the Redeemer was a place afire. It was a megachurch before megachurches came into vogue. It had everything: an international reputation, fabulous music and joyous worship. It was not only a vibrant center for the Jesus movement that was transfixing the country in the early '70s, but it was the energy center for the charismatic movement, a type of Christianity straight from the exciting miracles of the New Testament book of Acts. Christians who were being "baptized in the Holy Spirit" within this movement felt they were witnessing the waking of a 2,000-year-old giant and experiencing a renaissance of the glory days of Christianity's beginning.

But there was more. Lurking in the shadows of Church of the Redeemer were dark secrets that in time made the church a living symbol of the charismatic movement's rise and decline; of a time when people's desire for God's love and power was shot through with pride, obsession with control and twisted sexuality.

It all began in 1964 when Graham Pulkingham, a burned-out Houston clergyman, traveled to New York and found himself transformed by the experience of being "baptized in the Spirit" through the prayers of David Wilkerson, author of "The Cross and the Switchblade" and today one of the world's best-known pentecostal preachers. Returning to Houston, the on-fire priest helped lay the groundwork for the Jesus movement. Under his leadership, the church catapulted itself into the communal living movement, creating dozens of extended Christian households encompassing more than 400 people in low-income neighborhoods. Through the books and magazine articles describing this remarkable church, thousands of curious babyboomer Christians visited Houston. Artists and musicians from around the world drifted in, creating a new genre of Christian music.

Things began to unravel in the mid 1970s after CBS's laudatory hour-long special in 1972 drew overflow crowds, overwhelming the church and its households. Pulkingham traveled to England to extend his influence by planting communities there, but left a cadre of authoritarian elders ruling the church in his absence. These elders began implementing the principles of a ruinous "discipleship movement" that was also sweeping contemporary Christianity - and devastating lives. The top elder at Redeemer was caught in adultery and the unrelated Jim Jones Guyana tragedy cast a pall over the notion of communal living. The household communities rapidly split up and even though Pulkingham moved back into 1980 to fix up the place, it was too late.

Not that Pulkingham was the best one to go around cleaning up anyone's reputation. A husband with six children, he had struggled with a lifetime of homosexual urges. Believing himself rid of them forever after his spiritual transformation in New York, he let himself be enticed back into the lifestyle several years later and began to act on these urges in England. He and his wife moved into separate bedrooms and he began propositioning male followers for sexual favors. In Houston, other followers noticed his theology had taken a decidedly left-hand turn. As more sex scandals - again involving elders - rocked the church, he was forced out just two years after his return. The charismatic movement had reached every corner of the globe by this time, but many of its American originators had turned on each other.

By the mid-1980s, both Pulkingham and the charismatic movement had run out of steam as disappointed followers penned books such as "Power Religion," "Churches That Abuse" and "Disappointment With God." Insiders who tried to reform the movement – and Pulkingham’s church - were largely ignored.

Then the PTL and Jimmy Swaggart scandals became double black eyes for Christianity while the 1988 presidential run of the first openly charismatic Christian candidate Pat Robertson politicized the movement. The monastic trio of poverty, chastity and obedience in the lives of early charismatics that had propelled their movement to such heady successes became the three-way trap of sex, money and power. God's love and power, which had transformed Church of the Redeemer, had been perverted to become raw power and sexual desire. Rocketing way beyond its biblical basis, the charismatic Christian movement in the 1990s became fertile ground for bizarre spiritual manifestations, such as believers being overcome with "holy laughter," uncontrollable shaking, making animal noises during services and people claiming that God was supplying them with new gold fillings for their teeth.

The book climaxes with Pulkingham's betrayal at the hands of the wife of a former lover and the collapse of a new community he founded north of Pittsburgh. By the time he was stricken with a fatal heart attack while caught in the midst of a 1993 supermarket shootout, Pulkingham was disgraced by a decades-long string of homosexual flings, under investigation by his bishop for propositioning some of the troubled men he counseled and on the verge of being defrocked by the very denomination he helped energize for three decades.

The reporter who narrates the book becomes part of the tale when she acquires a job at the Houston Chronicle at the midpoint of the book. Her investigation of Graham Pulkingham is the final straw that leads to his downfall and ultimately his death.

"Days of Fire and Glory" required 182 face-to-face interviews. It reveals how sex and religion, unhappily tangled, are still the stuff of headlines. The amazing characters, who were gifted people with the best intentions, failed miserably when they allow their faith in God to succumb to the desires of their bodies. Theirs is a cautionary tale that would well be heeded by all for whom the Gospel has become the foundation of their earthly success. Intentional community movements are becoming popular among young Christians and some of the worst excesses of religious authoritarian movements of several decades ago are popping up under new names.

However, the book is an inspiration that shows what God once did among an unlikely group of people in Houston and what He can do again.

As for babyboomers who lived through the religious movements of the last decades of the millennium, "Days of Fire and Glory" is a long-awaited validation of their search for God.