31 October 2005

By Michael Rose

Following in what seems like a trend of long profiles of charismatic or enigmatic Christian leaders, this week’sWashington Post Magazine features “Mysterious Ways,” an 8,000-word article about Mike Ferree, a Pentecostal tent revivalist. Ferree makes a meager wage compared to, say, Rick Warren, subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent profile in the New Yorker. Here, Wells Tower gives us a portrait of Ferree as a man so devoted to God and his calling that he’s willing to live away from his wife about half the time, make a net of about $300 from a collection for each appearance he makes, and preach to small congregations in broken-down churches in poor urban neighborhoods or anywhere else that will host him.

The article is extremely well reported and thoughtfully written. It’s clear that Tower spent a great deal of time with Ferree and his large family. He traveled with him to Tennessee, where Ferree lives, and to a tent revival in North Carolina. The reporter draws on a great deal of interview material and observations, in addition to bringing in the requisite experts (in this case, academics from Harvard and Regent Universities) and research on Pentecostalism in America. But unfortunately, Tower doesn’t include as many interviews with Ferree’s congregants. And this would seem to be one of the most important ways of evaluating a preacher, and indeed, of writing about nearly any religious subject.

The one interview we do get, with Danielle and Terry Donaldson, comes toward the end of the piece, and we learn that they drove 850 miles from Arkansas to hear Ferree preach in North Carolina. They talk about how they were both addicted to drugs and that a tape recording of Becky Trammel, Ferree’s sister, helped save them. And while Danielle does say that, “He died on the cross for us…we can go 850 miles for Him,” we don’t actually learn why they chose to drive 850 miles specifically for Ferree.

And unfortunately, these are the only believers we meet in this piece. Tower inserts a lengthy description of a service at Lakewood Church in Houston, Joel Osteen’s congregation that meets in a former sports arena—the largest church in the country. Presumably he does this to draw a contrast with Ferree’s ministry, but Ferree ends up coming off as a semi-pathetic figure, a down-on-his-luck preacher, a former drug addict who drives an old Cadillac from one preaching engagement to another.

But even at Lakewood, we don’t really get a sense of who the congregants are. Readers are left wondering about just who comes to “Mike Ferree’s meetings…[which] might look like esoteric throwbacks to an antique, backwater faith.” These congregants may be, as Tower suggests “members of a new global religious vanguard,” but we never get that impression. The couple who drove 850 miles to see Ferree don’t really seem to fit that description.

But maybe this is the point. Ferree comes off as an old-style preacher, summoning up images akin to Robert Duvall’s character in The Apostle. His character doesn’t fit with the megachurches that seem to get written about in every other publication. And in this way, the piece offers a glimpse at a kind of religious life that may not be as prevalent in the U.S. as it is elsewhere in the world. It’s too bad, though, that Tower couldn’t show us the Pentecostal movement’s prominence overseas (which he hints at), or any more adherents to Ferree’s particular brand of preaching.

Still, while the section about Lakewood Church initially seems random and lends the whole piece a somewhat disjointed feel, this is a thoroughly reported piece that gives readers a glimpse into a modern-day traveling minister, a seemingly dying breed.

Michael Rose is a writer living in New York.