In reruns of an older podcast called Heretics, Ira Glass describes Pearson as a “rising evangelical megastar” that “at the height of his popularity, became involved in a scandal: He didn’t have an affair, he didn’t embezzle money, he didn’t admit an addiction to prescription painkillers—no, no, none of that. He stopped believing in hell.”
Sometimes I enjoy listening to the This American Life podcast on my road trips. It is a secular podcast that provides storied snippets portraying all kinds of different thoughts and experiences within American life. Although I often am saddened by the typical narrative that follows the current secular worldviews and portrayals of the Christian faith. And yet it does help me to see how the world sees and that can be profitable in strengthening the church’s witness.
This American Life is debuting a movie on Netflix called Come Sunday, which covers the life of Pentecostal Carlton Pearson, his rise to fame, and sudden downfall. So they are rerunning an older podcast called Heretics, where Ira Glass describes Pearson as a “rising evangelical megastar” that “at the height of his popularity, became involved in a scandal: He didn’t have an affair, he didn’t embezzle money, he didn’t admit an addiction to prescription painkillers—no, no, none of that. He stopped believing in hell.” He explains that this is “the kind of thing that happens from time to time here in America, even now. He became a heretic. A very prominent heretic….it didn’t end with the Salem witch trials.” As you can see by the language used, the church is not painted in a positive light. We are still hunting witches; they just look different.
Reporter Russell Cobb narrates the story in the podcast, along with many excerpts from his interviews with Carlton Pearson, who grew up in a “strict Pentecostal denomination: no smoking, drinking, cursing, or dancing. But there was lots of church going.” Pearson elaborates, “The devil was as present and as large as God. He had most of the people. He was ultimately going to get most of the people.” He explains how demons were all over the neighborhoods, the churches, and the schools. And “if you believe it, you experience it.” So naturally, Pearson cast out his first demonic spirit, from his own girlfriend at that, at a church revival when he was a mere 17 years old. He made a name for himself as he cast out several demons during that 3-day revival.
And yet Pearson recalls how he was smothering in the black, anti-intellectual ghetto and found a way out by attending Oral Roberts University. Oral Roberts changed the image of Pentecostalism with a more positive message that reached a wealthier class. He also took Pearson under his wing as a sort of “second son.” By joining Roberts’ World Action Singers (with Kathy Lee Gifford), Pearson found a sanctified way to travel the world. However, tension with Roberts’ son caused Pearson to branch out on his own.
As Pearson found his preaching voice, congregants flocked to him. He was funny, taught them about some of the Greek roots in his talks, and therefore was seen as giving a scholarly, in depth analysis of Scripture in an entertaining fashion. “He flew around the country guest preaching with some of the biggest names in the evangelical world. People like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He was in and out of the White House, under both Bushes and Clinton. And when George W. Bush started his faith based initiative program, Carlton sat on an advisory panel and became a spokesman for the plan. He hosted a show on TBN, Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian cable channel. He was appointed to the Board of Regents at Oral Roberts University and made bishop in 1995 by the International Communion of Charismatic Churches. And he started a revival called AZUSA, a modern day evangelical festival.” Pearson gave TD Jakes his break, introducing him to an international audience. Attendance to the church he founded, Higher Dimensions, grew to regular attendance of 5,000 people in Sunday service, successfully integrating a diversity of race. He was well loved, even as he continued to preach about hell with all the supernatural flair of the Pentecostal faith, rebuking the devil and speaking in tongues.