The Legacy of Oral Roberts

From prosperity gospel to Pentecostalism, Oral Roberts helped influence a generation of Christians. (Think Joel Osteen and Ted Haggard, too.) What will his long-term legacy be?

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Roberts had one life message, summed up in a variety of sayings as he preached over the years: "Something good is going to happen to you." "God is a good God." "All things are possible." "Expect a miracle." These sayings are a picture of Christianity imbued with the power of positive thinking, and they represent the life work of Oral Roberts.

These days, with Osteen offering Your Best Life Now and Pentecostal believers around the world embracing a version of Christianity that promises physical health and material wealth (of which, more below), it might be hard to imagine how fresh "God is a good God" must have seemed four or five decades ago. But it was a catchy clarification of an idea with which Christians had not always been in close contact, given previous generations’ emphasis on Calvinist doctrines of human depravity and a judgmental God. Of course, the Calvinist God was (and is) technically good, too, but Robert’s seemed extra good. Or only good.

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A closer look shows that the God that Roberts preached had subtleties, too. The titles of Roberts books—there are over 130 of them!—reveal his focus on a God who is not only good, but nearly desperate to shower blessings on believers…if only they will exercise faith. One of Roberts’ core concepts was "Seed Faith," a notion that if you sow a financial seed through giving, you will reap financial fruit. As a matter of open-handed Christian giving and an accompanying trust that God will provide, Seed Faith is basic Christian discipline. But Seed Faith is rarely that simple, promising as it does an automatic, material return on a material investment—more like a (pre-recession) 401(k) than a mature spiritual practice. It issues a guarantee that life with God can be perfect, physically and materially without want. Somehow, "Something good is going to happen to you" quickly turns into "Nothing bad is going to happen to you."

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