Editor’s note: Ole Anthony died April 16, at the age of 82. It has taken folks a few days to learn the news. The New York Times ran an obituary two days ago. John Bloom (aka Joe Bob Briggs) was a friend of Anthony’s and profiled him for D Magazine in a 1999 story titled “The God Thing.”
Ole Anthony was a complicated man. Several journalists over the years tried to understand him, usually looking for the “gotcha” factoid that would reveal him to be a charlatan or a con man — and they usually found it! Insecure about his lack of a formal education, he tended to inflate his credentials and pretend to have skills he didn’t have. He basked in the attention of intellectuals and media figures. He never met a microphone he didn’t love. Before his conversion experience in the ’70s, he was a heartless corporate creep and politician. And not just any politician — he was the kind that always bent the rules and at one time was engaged almost exclusively in the business of selling access to the Dallas mayor’s office.
All these tendencies were suppressed but not extinguished by his Damascus Road experience, and they served him well as he established the Trinity Foundation and became a one-man scourge against the “prosperity gospel” religious establishment and its shameful, organized, computerized and cynical fleecing of widows and orphans. He recognized the greed because he was greedy. He spotted the cons because he knew how to deal from the bottom of the deck (literally! — he had dealt blackjack in a small-time western casino). He loved the “whited sepulcher” types, the holier-than-thou preachers, because he could easily spot their hidden sexual fetishes, the secret lives that often led to the collapse of empires built on fake healing and dummy corporations used to finance their lust.
That’s why a lot of people were confused by his preaching — the flash of fire that came from his extensive study of the Torah and the Talmud. He was often described as “an Old Testament prophet” — maybe because he was a 6-foot-5 Norwegian with the deep voice of a radio announcer — but he was about as New Testament as they come. He could quote any verse of Paul’s letters at any time, because he basically believed that they were the whole secret to the kingdom. It was as though, when he opened the Bible, he became a different person or what the 19th century would have called a “pure vessel.”
The Catholic church has always been troubled by spiritual wisdom that comes from an unlikely source — a child, a mentally ill person, a criminal — and so they have rules for investigating “miracles” and assigning sainthood. The people who best understood Ole Anthony come from a different tradition, the one that started in Scotland and snaked down through the Great Appalachian Valley to the ramshackle little roadside churches strewn along every highway in the South. These people don’t trust a preacher unless he overcame whiskey or women or homicide. They believe the pure gospel comes out of a broken vessel. Ole Anthony was always welcomed into those churches, and always understood.