Author’s Corner with John Wigger

9780199379712John Wigger is a Professor of History at the University of Missouri. This interview is based on his new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write PTL?

JW: I was fascinated by how fast PTL grew and how quickly it fell apart. What I really wanted to know was how PTL’s rise and fall were connected. How does deep religious devotion become so entwined with money, sex, and celebrity on a Hollywood scale? A short synopsis might help:

Jim and Tammy started the PTL network with half a dozen employees in a former furniture store in 1974. By 1986 PTL had annual revenues of $129 million, 2500 employees, a 2300-acre theme park, Heritage USA, and a private satellite network that reached into fourteen million homes in the US. That year, six million people visited Heritage USA. Jim and Tammy lived in luxury, buying vacation homes, expensive cars covered with One Sure Insurance and clothes, and traveling first class with an entourage. Then it all came crashing down. In March 1987 Bakker resigned in disgrace after his 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. Stories emerged about gay relationships and visits to prostitutes. By the end of the year, PTL was in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation. In 1989 Bakker was convicted of wire and mail fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of PTL?

JW: PTL helps to explain the persistent connections between religion and popular culture in American life, a connection that runs much deeper than politics alone. PTL grew so quickly because of its embrace of consumer and celebrity culture, much of it through the prosperity gospel, but along the way the money and fame undermined the religious convictions of those at the top.

JF: Why do we need to read PTL?

JW: It’s a story full of human drama, sincere faith, innovations both cultural and technical, financial fraud, secret affairs, and the allure of television cameras. But it also says a lot about why faith continues to be vibrant part of American life. Many of the central characters in the story—Jim and Tammy Bakker, Richard Dortch, David Taggart, John Wesley Fletcher, and of course Jessica Hahn—seem almost too improbable for a novel. But together they helped first to build one of the largest ministries in recent American history and then to bring it down.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JW: History and academia are a second career for me. My undergraduate degree is in Petroleum Engineering. After college I drilled oil and gas wells in California for about six years. Part of that time I lived a few blocks from the beach. One day I woke up and thought, I’m having too much fun and making too much money, what should I do? Grad school seemed the obvious answer. Okay, more seriously, I’ve always been interested in the connections between religion and culture in American life and how those connections have persisted and shifted over time. That’s what led me to switch careers and what this book is about.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: I’m not exactly sure. Hopefully something surprising that will make a good read.

JF: Thanks, John!

Ed Sullivan and Civil Rights


The Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1966

Hey Todd Allen, I think you should include something about Ed Sullivan in your Return to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.

Here is a taste of an article about a forthcoming documentary titled “Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights tells the story of the man who single-handedly changed the face of popular culture and impacted the minds and lives of both his performers and his viewers. This long-awaited, 70-minute documentary takes a surprising look at the man who was once television’s most influential personality. Visit to learn more.

Suzanne Kay, daughter of the iconic actress and singer Diahann Carroll, and Margo Precht Speciale, granddaughter of Ed Sullivan, are Producers. They will participate in the film festival panel along with Diahann Carroll, Dwandalyn R. Reece, Ph.D., Curator of Music and Performing Arts, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ed Sullivan is best known for creating television’s longest running variety show and for introducing The Beatles to America. But he was also a risk-taker who consistently booked African-American artists despite threats from southern sponsors and letters from irate white viewers. He showcased unknown artists who are household names today, and he treated them with grace and dignity at a time when racism was the norm, challenging America to do the same.

Based on interviews with celebrities, Sullivan’s family members, and media analysts, this documentary shines a light on a little known chapter in America’s struggle for racial justice.  Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Berry Gordy of Motown, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg are just some of those interviewed as they talk about how the show was a launching pad for their careers and changed their vision of America and America’s vision of African-Americans.

Read the entire article here

Take a History Course on Dolly Parton

Dolly_Parton_with_Larry_Mathis_and_Bud_BrewsterJacey Fortin of The New York Times reports on a history course at the University of Tennessee focused on the life and times of country singer Dolly Parton.  The course is taught by historian Lynn Sacco, author of Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History.

Check out Sacco’s course website here.

Here is a taste of the course description:

History honors students look at how a “hillbilly” girl from Appalachia grew up to become an international one-word sensation. The course pulls students in to study someone they thought they already knew and familiarizes them with analyzing popular culture as a historical source. Reading about how hillbillies and feuds began as made-up characters and tropes in novels and cartoons to the rise of hillbilly music to Christian entertainment and the thread of tourism, students see the processes by which fiction often becomes fact, and how heritage is a blend of the real and the imagined.

Here is a taste of Fortin’s article:

According to Dr. Sacco’s syllabus, the seminar looks at a history of the 20th century not from the vantage point of elites, but through the eyes of Ms. Parton, “a poor white girl born in midcentury Appalachia.”

It has a wealth of reading materials, including Ms. Parton’s own 1994 book, “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” and a slew of contemporary articles from periodicals such as The Tennessee Magazine, The Knoxville News Sentinel and The New York Times. Their topics range from child labor in the early 20th century to the Kennedy-era Appalachian Regional Commission and modern economic anxiety in the region.

Read the rest here.


Will You Be Watching the Season Finale of “The Justice” Tonight?


Tonight, Donald Trump will say “You’re Fired” to either Neil Gorusch or Thomas Hardiman

I hope that tonight you will have some time to watch the season finale of Donald Trump’s “The Justice.”  That’s right, Trump will be announcing his Supreme Court Justice tonight on live television.  The POTUS has identified two finalists:  Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman.  Both men have arrived in Washington D.C. for the live finale.

Here is what I am expecting:  The two men will be sitting next to each other on one side of a large conference table. Trump will enter the room and sit across from them.  Then, with the live cameras rolling, he will publicly question both men concerning their credentials and judicial philosophy.

Trump will then fire one of the judges and nominate the other one as a Supreme Court Justice.

Reality TV meets the Supreme Court.  The ratings will be yuuuuuge!

Ted Cruz Channels Michael Douglas in “The American President”

Ted Cruz has a good memory.  He has apparently memorized Bible verses, the entire United States Constitution, and various lines from “The Princess Bride.”  (Inconceivable!).

“The Princess Bride” is apparently not the only movie he has memorized.  In the wake of Donald Trump’s threat to “spill the beans” about his wife Heidi, Cruz went on CNN this morning and channeled Michael Douglas (without attribution) from the movie “The American President.”

Here it is:

What If Ken Burns Produced *Star Wars*?

I know nothing about Star Wars.  I will not be seeing the new film (I honestly do not know the title of it–I will have to look it up).  I have never seen any of the Star War films.  Isn’t there some guy in it named Obie Juan Kenowbee?

I actually have met people who think “Empire Strikes Back” is a better film than The Godfather and Godfather II.  I am deeply offended by this comparison.

So when a few people shared this video (below) I hesitated to post it.  And then I realized that some folks who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home might be fans of both Ken Burns and Star Wars.

This video is thus a blatant attempt to get more readers.  I think the kids call it “click bait.”


Studying *Breaking Bad*

I have never seen an episode of the television series Breaking Bad, but I hear a lot about it from Jim LaGrand, my friend and fellow professor in the Messiah College History Department.  When you mention the show to Jim, he gets a big smile on his face and proceeds with a small speech about the tragic dimension of life in this world.

Last year Jim and Messiah College librarian Jonathan Lauer taught a course devoted entirely to the show. This year Jim is at it again. The interdisciplinary course is titled  “The Wages of Sin is Death: Breaking Bad as the New American Tragedy.” It even has a website!

Over the course of the semester students in this course watch the entire Breaking Bad series and read:

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin
Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Here is part of course description:

A number of serialized TV dramas over the past decade or so have led many critics to call this period “the golden age of television.”  No show better epitomizes this label than Breaking Bad.  Its thrilling plots and cliff-hangers have won it millions of viewers.  But it’s more than a pop culture phenomenon.  Creator Vince Gilligan’s show stands out for its novelistic structure and sensitive examination of characters’ inner lives.  Even more remarkable for a television program, Breaking Bad provides a relentlessly honest picture of the human condition–both its vices and virtues.  The show’s depictions of the seven “deadly sins” or “capital vices”–especially pride, envy, greed, and wrath–have led many viewers to recall Greek and Shakespearean tragedies.  Acclaimed not only by the public but also by television and literature critics, Breaking Bad is uniquely well-suited among television shows for study and reflection in a classroom context.

You can see the syllabus here.  

Check out Jim’s essay “Breaking Bad for Christians: A Morally Ordered Show.”

How Do You Promote an Introduction to History Course?

Put together a very cool parody of the television show Mad Men.

The good folks in the History Department at Bethel University in St. Paul–led by Chris Gehrz, the Pietist Schoolman— have created a new class called “Introduction to History.”  The course will include regular webisodes called “Past and Presence.”  The course does not begin until Fall, but Chris and his colleague Sam Mulberry have already produced a teaser.  As you watch it, you may notice that Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, makes several cameo appearances in the video.  (The book will be one of the course texts).  I hope the book appears in enough future episodes to be considered for a supporting actor Emmy!

Duck Dynasty Trounces the Tea Party in Louisiana Election

Great post here from Rod Dreher.  Apparently a candidate for the in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District who had the support of Willie Robertson, the star of the popular television show Duck Dynasty, defeated a Tea Party candidate who had the support of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Here is a taste of Dreher’s post:

A stunning election result tonight in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional district. Political newcomer Vance McAllister beat the snot out of State Sen. Neil Riser in the runoff. Both men are Republicans, and both quite conservative. Riser was understood as having the support of the state GOP establishment, including Gov. Bobby Jindal. Riser was also backed by the state Tea Party. After the primary election, McAllister began to sound more conciliatory, saying that he would work with Democrats. Riser jumped on that, trying to paint him as a squish.
McAllister’s secret weapon: the Robertson family. Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson cut a last-minute ad for McAllister. That has got to have had a huge effect. It was a total McAllister blowout tonight. The Tea Party is nothing compared to the Duck Commander dudes.

What Bruce Springsteen Would Say to Miley Cyrus

Over at Blogness on the Edge of Town, Pete Chianca imagines what a letter from Bruce Springsteen to Miley Cyrus might look like.  Here is  taste:
Dear Miley:
How ya doin’? I just wanted to drop you a note to say hi, ’cause we got a lot in common — for instance, did you know I put out a song called “Wrecking Ball” just like you? Yeah, it came out last year. I didn’t put out a video where I swing stark naked from an actual wrecking ball like you did, but other than that, yeah, it’s real close. Maybe next time!
Anyway, I been around a while, and I thought maybe you’d appreciate some, you know, career advice, since I know it’s tough bein’ in the spotlight and all that. I realize I was in the spotlight for being dubbed “rock ‘n’ roll’s future” and you’re there because you shook your bottom against Alan Thicke’s kid on national television, but it’s the same premise, ya know?…

…my daughter, she’s about your age, and if she ever did any of the things you do in that “Wrecking Ball” video I think my head would explode like the meth lab at the end of “Sinaloa Cowboys.” That’s a song off my “Ghost of Tom Joad” album — you should listen to it sometime….

So like I was sayin’, I have this expression I like to use, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” And when I saw you stickin’ your tongue out on the VMAs and licking that sledgehammer in your video, I thought, these are definitely “nobody wins” moments we’re talking about here. Not you, not me, not your dad Billy Ray, whose head is probably gonna explode any minute now. Besides, licking a sledgehammer — do you have any idea where that thing’s been? There’s probably like pieces of drywall on it and stuff…

So I’ve already gone on for too long, but just to recap: Tongue hanging out, bad; naked on wrecking ball, bad; dancing like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot, bad; being the future of rock ‘n’ roll, good. So if you take that to heart maybe you can wind up more like that nice Taylor Swift kid, who loves me, and is never naked in public. Also, Landau tells me our lawyers will be contacting you about the whole “Wrecking Ball” name thing.



Postmodern Conservatives Analyze "Big Bang Theory"

I don’t watch enough television to declare myself a fan of the CBS comedy “Bing Bang Theory,” but every time I watch an episode I am entertained.  I have thus been enjoying the analysis of the show over at Postmodern Conservative.  Here is a taste of Peter Lawler’s contribution to “Big Bang Studies”:

Those who have compared the show to Aristophanes aren’t wrong. But a big difference is that show has almost no civic dimension; these theorists are no danger to America (except when they use government stuff to pursue personal goals). They’re less of a danger than humanities professors, actually. They actually love America for its intellectual freedom, easygoing techno-prosperity, and openness to comic-book adventures. In no other country could they get away with wearing their superhero costumes…

They are (except maybe Raj–a complicated man) ideological secular humanists, but they’re not very evangelical secular humanists. If Sheldon really did return to Texas to teach evolution, things wouldn’t work out well for him (his day as a professor was a pretentious failure), and Leonard’s somewhat uncharacteristic showdown with Penny over astrology was a lesson for him in relational humility.

For more Big Bang Theory analysis from the gang at the Postmodern Conservative click here and here.  The posts are mostly reacting to Ken Masugi’s post on the show at The Library of Law and Liberty and Steven Hayward’s response at PowerLine.

Superman Turns 75

Over at The New Republic, Glen Weldon explains how the comic-book hero and symbol of America has fared over the years.  In the 1930s he was a “protective older brother.”  During World War II and the first decade of the Cold War he was “Father Knows Best.”  In the 1960s he was the “Morose Uncle.”  In the 1970s he was a “Guidance Counselor.”

A taste:

A closer look at the character’s history reveals that in fact the entire notion of Superman exists in a state of perpetual flux. The reason he has endured for three quarters of a century is that he continually evolves to reflect the culture around him. To sample a Superman comic, radio show, television episode, or film from any era is to get hit with a potent dose of the prevailing zeitgeist. There, plain to see, lie the obsessions, fears, hopes and values of the time, stripped to their essence and shoved into baby blue tights.