Photo by Johan VogelWhat the hell is going on with the Crouches? I usually don't pay much attention to the Trinity Broadcasting Network's star couple, Jan and Paul Crouch. Having chanced across the Reverend Gene Scott 20 years ago significantly raised the bar for what I expect from a televangelist.
Scott is a true genius. Along with being an insightful, original Bible scholar (he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr at Stanford), he rants like an Archie Shepp solo and often has ranted at other televangelists, referring on-air to Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart as "those assholes!" When one female televangelist asked why Scott surrounded himself with beautiful young women, he replied, "It's to keep the horny old ones offa me!" He once kept on his set a band of wind-up monkeys, representing government agencies that were after him, and he'd swipe at them with a baseball bat. When officials complained he was misusing church funds, he simply told followers to donate money directly to him, to use as he wanted. On his broadcasts, he shows off the racehorses and other fine things he's bought.
Now that's a televangelist. Then you have the Crouches. Though they sell TBN airtime to the genial hatemonger Pat Robertson (and to the marvelously entertaining Creflo Dollar, the Chris Rock of televangelists), the Crouches' own "teaching" is essentially Christianity for Smurfs, where, if you'll tithe sufficiently to them, ebbything gonna be hunky dunky down im lil' Smurfland. Great bounty will come to you, your money worries will be over, and you will have great abs. It's in the Bible!
Boy, do they and their godly buddies gush: "We're living in End Time!" "Zechariah knew the exact dimensions of the space shuttle!" "What we're going to reveal to you now will blow your mind right out the back of your head!" "We're in the last days!"
They are not your average power couple. Much like some devout Catholics exhibit Christ's bleeding stigmata, Jan Crouch seems to ooze Tammy Faye Bakker's old makeup from her every pore. Regarding Paul Crouch, the man with the silver Crayola hair, you just sit there wondering, "Is she too much woman for him?" He seems like the guy on your block who'd be driving the beige station wagon with the fake wood paneling peeling off, instead of the guy who lords over the world's largest Christian broadcast network (not to mention a sham "minority" network that got him in hot water with the FCC a few years ago).
The web abounds with sites thronged by Christians who revile the Crouches, calling them heretics and worse. I typically just call them boring: too preposterous to satirize and too tedious to watch for fun.
But maybe there's something to this End Days stuff (the prophesied time when the sole thing standing between mankind and its final judgment is Arnold Schwarzenegger) because the Crouches and their buddies are on a crazy roll.
I was switching channels recently, and I found Paul Crouch, a fellow named Brother Shamrock and others standing around a fire pit, tossing documents into the leaping flames. What I gathered after watching for a while is that individuals sunk in hopeless debt were urged to send in $3,000 (or at least a down payment of $300) along with copies of their outstanding bills, which, said B'rer Shamrock, "we're gonna burn on the altar and let him know, 'I need a miracle!'"
Hey, how about some Dead tickets while you're at it?
As guys are wont to do around a fire, they all started peeing in it. No, they didn't. That would have made sense. Instead, they started one-upping one another with wacky-weed-worthy pronouncements.
"You've got $3 million in debts? God'll wipe 'em out in two minutes!"
"That's right, we're flinging 'em right into Satan's fiery nostril!"
"And the smoke and your prayers will carry right up to God's nostrils."
I have heard religious men discuss most aspects of God, but never his nostrils. These are just the people to whom I would want to send my sensitive financial papers, not to mention $3,000.
Can this be legal? Can you have open trash fires in your yard? If you're in Costa Mesa, as the Crouches are, you can. (According to one TBN person I spoke with, some of the burning is done at TBN's bastion in Irving, Texas, where you can probably burn jet planes in your yard if you want.) I called the city of Costa Mesa, and a very helpful person in the fire-prevention department checked the code and said open fire pits are still legal; they'd only be breaking the law if they were creating a nuisance for their neighbors, and the burning of papers may well fall under the heading of a "recreational fire." I'd have to agree: if tossing reams of financial records into Satan's fiery nostril isn't recreation, I don't know what is.
It's play that pays, however. In 1998, the Crouches showed a combined income of nearly $600,000, while the network they control pulls in I don't know how many millions per year. On the air, they say they need the money to spread their ministry through the world, but the message of that ministry chiefly seems to be that people should send them money, which should make tings veddy hunky dunky im lil' Smurfland, imdeed. (Sorry, you've gotta hear their co-evangelist Benny Hinn sometime.)
Have you visited the TBN HQ there on Bear Street? It looks like Caesar's Palace, the Vegas version of Rome, and you don't get that without some serious rendering unto. Jesus might have been able to make wine, but no way could he afford to buy the vintages the Crouches throw down at local bistros such as Morton's and Pinot Provence, where they are frequently seen ordering the most expensive viands available, bless 'em.
Have you shaken your fist at my old high school teacher and pal Mike Mang lately? For the past several weeks, the onetime OC Green Party chairman has been holding 6 to 7 p.m. Friday-night anti-war protests at the corner of Bristol and Anton in Costa Mesa, right by where the Crouches might drive on their way to Pinot, bless 'em twice.
Mang has called to tell me about the protests a couple of times, and I suspect he's a tad disappointed I haven't joined their ranks, so will you go as my proxy? I did my share of marching and public protesting in the '70s—usually at Mang's instigation—and all that tromping and standing around didn't give me the impression it was making much difference. With the complex issues at play in our Afghan incursion, signs just don't hold enough words to change any minds, it seems to me.
Mang, however, sees momentum building. He's been doing it every Friday for six weeks now, and by the second week, his attendance had tripled, meaning there were two other people there.
"So we decided to form an executive committee," he said, laughing. By two weeks ago, the protesters numbered 25. The initial protests against the Vietnam War were also small, but I suspect our Afghan blitzkrieg may be over before the number of protestors gets much chance to swell, unless, as Mang suspects, Bush expands Operation Fiery Nostril or whatever we're calling it into Iraq.
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With the Twin Towers burned into our minds, the light U.S. casualties in Afghanistan and the TV images of happy Taliban-free Afghanis getting shaves, throwing off their burkas and enjoying Madonna again, it's easy to forget what we're not seeing: the hundreds or thousands of innocent Afghans killed in the bombing, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees who now face starvation or death.
Mang likens it to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia with modern tanks and planes. "We were attacked by a vicious terrorist, but that doesn't mean we have to do the same to these downtrodden people who had nothing to do with it. We should just hunt bin Laden the way Israeli Nazi-hunters did.
"It's a scary time to protest that, though. Kids have told me they're afraid of coming out here because if their bosses saw their picture in the paper here, they'd be fired," Mang says.
"The first couple of weeks, we got flipped off a lot, but I think it's starting to turn. We have a sign now saying, 'Honk if you're against the war,' and we've started getting a lot of honks and thumbs-up."