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News Watch


In Brief

by William M. Alnor (and Others)

columns from the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1992, page 5. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

Special Report: Tilton's Tottering TV Empire

Only months ago Robert Tilton, "Pastor to America," was a rising star in the crowded constellation of prosperity-preaching televangelists. His bustling Word of Faith Family Church in a Dallas suburb boasted 8,000 members and local real estate appraised at over $40 million.

Tilton's Success-N-Life TV show ranked twelfth in the national Arbitron ratings for syndicated religious television programs, viewed by an estimated 199,000 households -- and his cable audience was larger still. Televangelist-watcher Ole Anthony calls him "the biggest TV preacher ever." At his peak Tilton reportedly bought more than 5,000 hours of air time per month in all 235 U.S. markets and maintained a staff of over 800, many just to answer phones and take names and addresses 24 hours a day.

Most impressive of all was the way "Pastor Bob" made the cash roll in. Using preposterous scriptural pretexts, Tilton bullied and cajoled his followers into making "vows of faith" (typically $1,000) to get their miracle -- even if they didn't have the money. "Oh, I know you probably don't have a thousand dollars, but vow it." (In a 1990 interview he admitted drawing inspiration for his approach from TV real-estate pitchman Dave Del Dotto's "infomercials.") In the process Tilton built a mailing list of several million current and potential donors, pulling in around 10,000 letters each business day and between $65-$100 million a year, tax-free.

According to ABC's Prime Time Live, "Although the ministry is a corporation, Tilton personally has access to all its wealth, almost as if it were a sole proprietorship." The minister and his wife, Marte, reportedly earn over $1 million per year.

But Tilton's downfall may have been set in motion last year when members of Ole Anthony's Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group in Dallas, began sifting through trash from the dumpsters at Tilton's Tulsa bank, data processing firm, and lawyer's offices. Together with investigators from ABC, they made 14 garbage runs between August and October 1991, unearthing mounds of sensitive and compromising documents about the evangelist's finances and methods.

Pastor Bob mails vast quantities of gimmicky miracle doodads (e.g., coins, cloths, cardboard angels, rocks, vials of sand, tubes of oil, water from the River Jordan) to the people on his mailing list, urging them to send the items back for his personal attention. But, according to Anthony, Tilton almost never touches the stuff; in fact, the majority of the prayer requests that Tilton promises followers he'll personally and individually touch and pray over are routed first to a bank, then to a mail processing facility, and finally to a recycling center -- without the evangelist ever seeing them -- to be turned into toilet paper.

And that, says Anthony, is basis for mail fraud.

All told, four federal agencies and two state agencies are actively investigating Tilton. The Texas state attorney general has been hot on Tilton's trail since December, seeking incriminating documents and jousting with the evangelist in the courts. To make matters worse, by mid-July Tilton was facing at least nine civil suits with claims totalling roughly $500 million. One was filed by the widow of Tilton supporter Tom Crowley, who was still receiving the minister's fundraising appeals five months after her husband's death. One such letter said: "God spoke to me this morning specifically about you, Tom, and He's going to heal you." Crowley had paid Tilton a $100 "vow of faith" in the hopes of recovering. His wife is seeking $40 million in damages. According to Anthony, Tilton's lawyers especially fear the filing of a racketeering suit under civil RICO statutes.

The media are still hot on Tilton's trail. On July 9, Prime Time Live broadcast a damaging update on the minister, and the show's producers plan at least one new program on Tilton and televangelism in coming months. (Another network has an investigation in the works.) On July 12, in the first in what promises to be a punishing series of investigative articles the Dallas Morning News disclosed irregularities in Tilton's attempts to acquire or control a television station, raising serious questions about the "lease agreement" under which Tilton & Co. purchased virtually all available air time on Dallas's Channel 55, dubbed the "Power Channel." According to FCC officials, "The arrangement...raises the question of whether Mr. Tilton has, in effect, acquired control of the Dallas broadcast property without having undergone the proper licensing scrutiny."

Since the initial Prime Time report in November 1991, Tilton's church has lost at least 1,000 members. Ministry income has dropped by a third. And much of Tilton's audience is tuning him out: Ratings for February 1992 showed Success-N-Life finishing last in Arbitron's list of the nation's top 20 syndicated religious TV broadcasts (a plunge of nearly 39 percent) and falling to 25th place in Nielsen's list of top devotional programs.

Family Entertainment Network Moves to Dispel Controversy over New Testament Videos

The producers of a popular series of New Testament videos for children are hoping that speculation and controversy over their product's Mormon connections will soon be put to rest.

The set of twelve videos, called "Animated Stories from the New Testament," has been praised for its high quality animation, appealing musical score, and engaging renderings of New Testament events and parables. The total cost of the set, which is marketed nationally by Family Entertainment Network, Inc. (FEN), is roughly $400.

For some, however, there is more to the cartoons than meets the eye. As early as April 1991, members of ex-Mormon groups began to raise concerns about Mormon influence over the videos' production. It was learned that FEN is a for-profit corporation started in 1988 by Mormon businessmen Jared Brown and Seldon Young. The two had earlier founded Living Scriptures, Inc., a Utah-based, Mormon-oriented firm.

Living Scriptures, which was the first firm to market videos from the New Testament series, also promotes companion animated series for children based on stories from the Book of Mormon, Mormon church history, the Old Testament, and "Animated Hero Classics," among other items. FEN markets all but the Book of Mormon and Mormon history video series.

In the months that followed, many discovered that nearly all the key creative personnel behind both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament series are prominent Latter-day Saints (LDS), including Richard Rich (animation), Orson Scott Card (screenplays), Lex de Azevedo (musical scores), and Carol Lynn Pearson (lyrics). BYU professor Ivan Crossland provides the voice of Jesus in both series.

Despite FEN's assurances that the doctrinal content of the New Testament videos is sound -- and despite the presence of a well-advertised Executive Advisory Board "to insure biblical accuracy" -- some Mormon concepts nevertheless found their way into the videos.

For example, FEN has sold thousands of copies of the video He Is Risen, featuring a song about Jesus that originally said: "He paid the price for me, there in Gethsemane, And He suffered willingly so I could live again." The doctrine that Christ atoned for our sins as He agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane is peculiar to Mormonism.

Christian Research Institute and other countercult ministries have received complaints from FEN customers claiming that when they inquired about the company's Mormon ownership and creative involvement, FEN representatives either evaded their questions or flatly denied any LDS connections. Some, feeling betrayed, have sought to return the videos and get refunds, and a number of Christian bookstores have stopped carrying the products.

Controversy over the firm's Mormon connections has also contributed to the decision of at least one member of FEN's Executive Advisory Board to step down. The former board member, who asked not to be named, told the Journal that he was not informed of FEN's Mormon business connections until after he had joined the panel, adding that when he accepted the post he was unaware that the videos' main production team was also LDS.

FEN has been stung by criticism from other quarters. In September 1991, B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center publicly expressed their concerns about characterizations in the videos which the latter said "systematically reinforce dangerous stereotypes about the Jewish people."

Then, in January 1992, prominent ex-Mormon Ed Decker of Saints Alive in Jesus agreed to join FEN's advisory panel and conduct a thorough review of all the videos, workbooks, and other related materials in order to identify and purge any doctrinal errors -- Mormon or otherwise. For many, Decker's credentials as an uncompromising opponent of Mormonism were established through the film The God Makers, and he was among the first to sound a warning about the videos. But though Decker's product review was intended to still the controversy, both he and FEN found themselves under fire from a number of counter-Mormon ministries.

FEN chose not to take all such criticism lying down. Bill Major, a lawyer for the Southern Baptist Convention's Home Mission Board, confirmed that in early 1992 FEN threatened Utah Missions, Inc. (UMI) -- an Oklahoma-based ministry to Mormons -- with legal action. Although Major declined to explain the nature of FEN's grievance, until April UMI had severely criticized the videos in its newspaper, The Utah Evangel, and sought to persuade bookstores and other outlets to boycott the series.

In April, Decker submitted an 18-page review of the materials, and on July 15 he issued a statement, saying: "I am pleased to report that FEN has enthusiastically implemented my recommendations and the products now stand clean of any Mormon or other non-orthodox influence. As such, I endorse them as products of the highest quality and I confidently recommend them to Christian families and churches." The next day Decker told the Journal that after a visit to FEN's Dallas headquarters he was satisfied that revised videos were now available and being shipped to new customers.

FEN president Steve Griffin told the JOURNAL that only four videos -- He Is Risen, The Good Samaritan, Forgive Us Our Debts, and Bible Songs -- needed modification. The company is now offering replacement tapes, at $4 shipping and handling each, to customers wanting to exchange their copies of the original versions. At Decker's insistence, all FEN sales personnel are now to be given standardized information in order to respond accurately and consistently to prospective buyers' questions on the videos' Mormon background.

FEN's efforts to resolve its Mormon problem may reassure Christians who are sensitive to increased efforts by the Mormon Church and its members to gain acceptance among evangelicals and exploit Christian media. And, while some might worry that by purchasing the New Testament video series, Christians provide capital for LDS businessmen Brown and Young to create more children's videos promoting Mormonism, Griffin -- who attends an independent Bible church -- states "unequivocally" that such concerns are unfounded, since all profits are being reinvested in FEN itself.

In Brief....

Is the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's [a.k.a. Osho] cult dead? Far from it, according to a May 25 report in Der Spiegel, Germany's leading newsweekly. Record numbers of Germans, Japanese, Italians, and Eastern Europeans -- "spiritual marionettes" -- are flocking to the guru's "oasis of inner growth" in Poona, India. "An average of six thousand visitors per day -- double the 1989 figure -- pass through the ashram's gate (on the condition that they test negative for AIDS). More than 10,000 attend during peak periods like the anniversary of Osho's death (which is celebrated with a lively carnival)."


March 21 Kansas City Star reports that "for the first time in its 103-year history, Unity School of Christianity has developed a comprehensive plan for its future." Unity's leadership has identified some 25,000 "primary path" followers -- those for whom Unity is their main religion -- and plans to emphasize spiritual services to that group. Still, the sect's wider impact is apparent: its Daily Word publication has 1.5 million subscribers, and its "Silent Unity" prayer ministry received 776,249 phone calls and over 2 million letters in 1991. Recessionary pressures influenced the group's recent moves to cut nearly 50 jobs and discontinue both its Wee Wisdom children's magazine and its radio public service announcements.


Cult Calendar

- On April 15 desperate trustees of Connecticut's financially strapped University of Bridgeport accepted an offer of $50 million from the Professors World Peace Academy, an affiliate of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Also, in a May 28 speech, Rev. Moon disclosed that he has invested "close to $1 billion" in the Washington Times during its 10-year history in his effort to make the newspaper "an instrument to save America and the world."

- On April 27 the Church of Scientology filed a $416-million libel suit against Time magazine, reporter Richard Behar, and Time-Warner. Meanwhile, on May 29 a federal judge dismissed the cult's $20 million suit against an executive of Eli Lilly & Co., maker of the popular anti-depressant Prozac. The executive had characterized Scientology as "a commercial enterprise...organized for only one purpose, which is to make money" in a 1991 USA Today interview.

- On May 15 authorities in the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales seized 140 children in dawn raids on six houses connected with the Children of God/Heaven's Magic cult.

- On May 27 racist cult leader Yahweh ben Yahweh and six of his followers were found guilty on charges ranging from conspiracy to racketeering. Yahweh and 15 of his disciples in the Nation of Yahweh went on trial in January for ordering the murders of 14 people, the attempted killings of two others, and the firebombing of an entire block of Delray Beach, Florida.

- On June 26 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that solicitors seeking donations can be banned from airport terminals. A spokesman for the Hare Krishna cult, which initiated the lawsuit, called the decision "a serious blow."

End of document, CRJ0113A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"News Watch" and "In Brief"
release A, June 30, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.

Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.

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