One often wonders how seriously to take reporting at The Daily Beast; replete as it can be with advocacy journalism, big blaster headlines and your basic clickbait material.
This is why I can’t get too upset with their latest mash-up — a combo of World Cup soccer headlines and a shoddy report on northern California’s Bethel Church. Their headline tries to say it all: “Bethel Church in Redding, California, is pro-Trump, believes in conversion therapy, and endorses ‘faith healing’ and ‘dead raising’ — far cry from its most famous resident.”
That resident just happens to be the purple-haired, out-lesbian, all-world soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who just led the U.S. national women’s team to victory at the World Cup.
It’s too bad the reporter didn’t actually visit Redding but instead relied on material from other publications. It would also help if she checked spellings of words such as “Pentecostal” and understood that the Assemblies of God is not a congregation, it’s a denomination. Factual errors like those near the top of this kind of story mar any further reporting attempts. [Note: one commentator has told the reporter did show up in Redding to do the story. My question: Where’s the dateline?]
I’ll pick up the story here:
Rapinoe’s international celebrity has put Redding and its political fault lines in the spotlight. But the politics of Redding are complicated beyond simple party affiliations, in part because the town is also home to another divisive, wildly successful, cultural claim to fame: the Bethel Church. The multimillion-dollar revivalist megachurch has stirred controversy in Rapinoe’s hometown and throughout the religious world for its embrace of consumerist Christianity, extensive gay conversion therapy programs (Rapinoe is an out lesbian), and semi-mystical practices. Bethel members believe that miracles can occur on earth, and YouTube is filled with footage of their efforts: from faith healing, to “fire tunneling” (where members form a “tunnel” with two lines and speak in tongues to people passing through), to “grave sucking” — where someone lies on a grave to “suck up” the dead person’s blessings.
“Semi-mystical practices?” The New Testament also alleges that miracles can and do occur. The New Testament is rather mainstream material for a billion or two people living on this planet.
Also, I watched the video attached to the “grave sucking” link. It shows groups of people –- it’s not clear where they are from and who they represent — praying at revivalist Smith Wigglesworth’s grave in west Yorkshire, England and at the grave of another revivalist in Wales.
No sight of anyone laying down on the graves or even touching them. Might want to beef up the accuracy of those links, folks.
Bethel wields immense local influence: of Redding’s 90,000 residents, 11,233 are Bethel members, according to a report from northern California magazine A News Cafe. They maintain an extensive media presence — including a TV subscription service with 19,000 subscribers, two weekly podcasts with downloads in the millions, several well-attended annual conferences, and a music production arm with multiple chart-topping hits. (Justin Bieber is a fan; last year, he covered one of their singles, “Reckless Love”). Media and product sales alone earned Bethel some $23 million last year, according to A News Cafe, but the registered “nonprofit” organization also generates income from a K-8 academy called Bethel Christian School, an online and summer program called WorshipU, the Bethel School of Technology, the Bethel Conservatory of the Arts, and recently announced plans for the Bethel Business School. Most famously: they operate the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, where each year some 2,000 students pay $12,050 to study at the unaccredited three-year seminary, also known as “Christian Hogwarts.”
The “Christian Hogwarts” title is not new and was used in a much better Bethel profile in Buzzfeed that I wrote about here. Unfortunately, this Daily Beast piece doesn’t even approach that level of reporting.
After a paragraph detailing the church’s donations for a civic auditorium and contributions to the police department budget (which no church is obligated to do, by the way), the report continues:
The church’s strengthening grip on the town has bred suspicion and resentment among non-Bethel residents which far exceeds any angst over Megan Rapinoe. Spokespeople for the Bethel Church, the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, Bethel President Bill Johnson and Bethel Senior Associate Leader Kris Valloton declined to speak with The Daily Beast for this story. In a statement provided by email, a Bethel representative wrote: “We celebrate the US Women’s Soccer Team’s historic fourth win of the World Cup and join in applauding our hometown’s talented athlete, Megan Rapinoe, and the success she has achieved on the world stage!”
Don’t blame them, must say, although Bill Johnson, whose photo is included with this blog post, isn’t known for doing media interviews. Would love to get him on the stage for an RNA convention.
But despite the headline, that’s the only proven connection between Rapinoe and her hometown’s largest church. In fact, there is no sign in the story that the soccer player is even aware of the church. But there’s plenty of dumping on the place by the Daily Beast.
Much of the local resentment toward Bethel involves their practice of “faith healing,” or the belief that physical ailments can be cured by prayer. According to Redding residents, it’s common for Bethel members to approach pedestrians and offer to help with minor ailments. “They stop you and ask to pray for something that they think is wrong with you,” said Nathan Blaze, a 15-year Redding resident and the administrator of two Redding-themed meme pages: “Redding Be Like” and “Bethel Memes.” But Bethel members direct faith healing at more serious and permanent conditions. Will Smith, a former Bethel member who lives in the Bay Area, said congregants often approach his friend’s son, who lives with cerebral palsy, offering to cure his illness—a gesture the child and his parents find distressing.
It’s distressing, alright, because the kid isn’t getting healed. If the Bethel-ites batted 100 in the healing ministry, as the founder of Christianity did, attitudes would be different. Jesus was mobbed by the sick and ailing during his public life for a reason. Also, people approached him, not the other way around, which is why members might want to cut back on the unsolicited approaching folks in public places.
There are legit concerns about Bethel that the Beast reporter repeated.
But where is the other half of the story? How about interviewing people who have been healed? Surely the church can produce a few names or willing people can be found on social media. But the Beast doesn’t give the other side. Is it simply not worth reporting? Bethel has a communications director, by the way. Did the Beast even call him?
It’s a shame that the state’s major papers, such as the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, have not mounted serious efforts to report on Bethel, especially as the church has dabbed in state politics. The Times has a new Column One feature spot on A1 that could be employed for a Bethel piece. Alas, I fear the typical LAT editor doesn’t even know what Bethel is. But, a San Diego public radio station, KPBS, did this story on Bethel earlier this month and did a much better job interviewing both sides.
The station found out that Bethel enrolls more vocational students from overseas than any other school in the country. For all of the Beast’s wailing about how pro-Trump Bethel might be, I’m betting the Bethel folks oppose Trumpian immigration restrictions, as that puts a huge damper on who they can train. That’s an angle the Beast could have explored but didn’t.
If you want to track Bethel, look up ANewsCafe, a northern California online magazine. Don’t know much about them but their piece on Bethel’s no-oversight finances is worth reading and disturbing.
There is news here. I’ve been following charismatic churches since the 1970s and I keep on wondering –- after reading articles like this one on finances -– why these churches make the same mistakes over and over again. When one family or a collection of families rules an institution and has no outside accountability, the place is going to implode in a nasty way. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but it will.
The most important sentence in the ANewsCafe piece is actually a quote from a 2017 book: “The Rise of Network Christianity,” about Bethel and its sister movements.
The quote says this about their form of Christianity:
It’s characterized by strong independent leaders who gain their “legitimacy and influence from their perceived ability to access supernatural power to produce ‘signs and wonders’ rather than through speaking ability or educational credentials.”
I cannot stress the accuracy of that statement enough. I’ve attended my share of meetings and services by folks who are part of this loose movement and if I had a dollar for every time a speaker claims to be a prophet or have seen or spoken to angels, I’d be a rich woman.
Of course it’s impossible to prove the angelic claims. It’s almost amusing how speaker after speaker, in an effort to let us know he or she Has Influence Up There, will tell of some alleged conversation with their guardian angel to boost support for their message.
Well, I digress, but let’s say there’s some rich reporting pastures at many Bethel-like churches. The Daily Beast staff could have actually visited some places, done original research and come up with a good story. They didn’t do any of that. But I’m hoping other news organizations will concentrate on Bethel, despite the lack of religion reporters at California’s larger newspapers. Bethel has been around for decades now and it’s time more California media looked into these folks.
FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from 2019 World Cup coverage.