Like many people interested in Christianity, Evangelical and Exvangelical alike, I’ve been following the Christianity Today podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The NPR-style audio documentary looks deeply into the Seattle church founded by Mark Driscoll and details many of its socially and theologically abusive practices.
Whether one loves or hates it, everyone has an opinion about it. Personally, I am obsessed with it and I think it carries great insight about MANY forms of Evangelical culture in my lifetime.
This week, an old friend of mine messaged me after finding out that another famous preacher had died last Spring. My friend and I lived in Akron, Ohio and in our world Ernest Angley was a household name. By the time he died at age 99 he was an institution in the Akron area and founded a global ministry of astounding scale.
He was also really weird. Angley was not just a throwback to the Elmer Gantry-style shyster-preacher archetype, he was, perhaps, its apotheosis. It was as if he sought to embody that identity with his whole being. The persona he constructed over his long life was beyond creepy. It was a Saturday Night Live character brought to life, and he paraded his many sins in full view of the public for seven decades.
Living in Akron, one absorbs the many stories of his wickedness in the air one breathes. My friend suggested that the story of Ernest Angley should be tackled in some way like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. I could not agree more, but I have a hard time seeing it come to fruition.
There was certainly national coverage of Angley’s death. And Akron’s local paper, The Akron Beacon Journal, published a brutal and honest series about the last major scandal of Angley’s life several years ago that is fascinating and heartbreaking and absolutely worth reading.
But on the whole, Christians like Angley are so weird they are treated like circus oddities by our thought-leaders and mainstream media gatekeepers. Whereas the cautionary tale of Mark Driscoll seems important, like a pivotal moment in Christian history, that of Ernest Angley seems like an idiosyncratic blip of weirdness, of kitschy interest only.
This is a failure of imagination and, I argue, classist.
Christianity Today is of course interested in Driscoll because he entered its world and was part of the corruption of its institutions. It makes perfect sense that it would present his story as something to take seriously. "He ruined Christianity!" Angley, on the other hand…
And from their perspective it is true. Who could deny the bufoonery of Ernest Angley and his toupee, exotic speech patterns, and preposterous suits?
Well I’m here to say that lots of people, not only in Akron, but around the world, swallowed his shtick hook, line, and singer. They just happened to be not the ideal audience for Christianity Today. Many of my relatives not only took him seriously, some attended his services and gave him money. My late cousin Mary Lee was one such person.
Mary Lee had developmental disabilities and lived a life entirely at the margins. Payday loan centers were her banks and she lived an unhealthy, itinerant life, shuffling between abusive men and social services. She discovered Ernest Angley’s church and was ripe for his con. It's a sad story, but is it important in the broader sense? Does is "scale," as they say?
Take a look at the financial power of Angley’s ministry. The numbers are staggering. He did not build that empire by exploiting only Mary Lee. There is a vast segment of the Christian market that Angley and his ilk are keen to manipulate. Uneducated people living in precariousness are seeking God and are easy marks for religious con artists. But they do not belong to the class of Christians that sober, serious Christian media outlets see when they imagine people they call “Christians.” They are not suburban and do not subscribe to magazines. Like the underclass in Metropolis, they float here and there underneath the great currents of "mainstream" Christianity. Christianity Today readers will send their youth groups on missionary trips into their communities, but those communities will not factor into the content decisions about "topics of interest to Christians."
There will be no market for a Rise and Fall of Earnest Angley.
The devotees of Ernest Angley walk invisibly among us, unaccounted for in the stories that “define” Christianity. This can only empower the other Angley’s of the present and future.
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