The death of Paul Crouch last week brought back memories of my first extended stay -- indeed, my first visit -- to the USA. It was in 1996 and I was a visiting research fellow at Calvin College in Michigan, working on my first book on John Owen.
Channel hopping one night, my wife and I came across the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Crouch's media empire, and found ourselves watching the show he hosted with his wife, Jan. We were immediately hooked, but for all the wrong reasons. Crouch, in his slick suit, looked like the epitome of the traveling snake oil salesman. His wife -- how can I put this delicately? Well, I guess I can't -- looked like a certain kind of lady that one might have found in a hostelry in Dodge City in the 1870s. Then there were the guests: the cast of characters seemed made up of women with what is termed 'big hair' and the men, who all seemed to be country and western singers, sported mullets which, while no doubt protected under the First Amendment, did rather raise the question of when good taste might be well advised to trump liberty. Should the government not intervene on the hair front, we asked ourselves?
The show was a far cry from the British evangelicalism with which we were both familiar, imperfect as that world was -- a world shaped by Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, J I Packer and others, with its gentleman amateur ethos, its ill-fitting suits, and its concern for content very much over style. We concluded that there were good reasons why secular Americans despised Christianity: its public face was frankly often despicable.
What is so striking about Crouch and his empire is how successful it was, and indeed is. To a British eye, it made a six pound note look plausible. But it worked. It really worked. Crouch had consummated a brilliant commercial marriage of a certain aesthetic and a certain theology. When you do that, when accountability is absolutely top down, and when there is huge money involved, it is very easy to become both very successful and to stray very far from the path of truth and integrity. He sold his message very well to a certain constituency and he built a business structure which insulated him from standard ecclesiastical accountability.
When I read Crouch's obituaries, I reflected once again on the fact that neither aesthetics nor (crucially) theology are so necessarily connected to integrity, transparency and proper accountability that any of us can afford to ignore or neglect the latter -- which, historically, are intimately connected to each other. One can change the aesthetic to a more tasteful one, and one can change the theology to a more biblical one; but if you lack accountability and integrity, your message becomes just one more product being hawked on the market.
The lessons of Crouch's life are still remarkably pertinent. Of course, Paul (the ancient apostle, that is) rejoiced that the truth was preached whether by good or by bad. So I hope do all Christians. But the career of Paul Crouch is still interesting for the lessons it teaches.