Goofin' on God
Most non-profit agencies do not employ private investigators, scrounge through people's trash, or use hidden cameras to pursue their quarry. But the Trinity Foundation has never been typical.
A small, religious enclave in East Dallas that runs a ministry for the homeless, Trinity has also forged a formidable reputation over the years by tracking greed and excess perpetrated in the name of religion.
The foundation monitors religious broadcasters, maintaining a massive videotape library of those peddling salvation on the airwaves. It also runs a telephone hotline for anyone who feels victimized by religious frauds.
By feeding the results of its investigations to reporters, the foundation has helped bring down prominent television evangelists--most notably Dallas' own Robert Tilton. Trinity's zealous watchdog efforts have also drawn frequent lawsuits, although none has been successful to date.
Beginning next month, the foundation will add an awesome new weapon to its arsenal: satire.
The foundation is finalizing plans to take over publication of The Door, a nationally known magazine that employs irreverence and pointed humor to shine light on the idiocy and arrogance that sometimes surface in the religion business. Trinity has big plans for The Door, including a religious send-up role for Texas drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs.
Since it was founded in California 25 years ago, The Door, published six times a year, has built a small but loyal following among believers with a sense of humor. Each issue of the slick magazine features unconventional interviews and standing barbs--such as naming a Loser of the Month--which highlight the unholy aspects of Christianity's pursuit.
Circulation has wavered over the years, and the magazine has never made money, but it has grown into a rarity--a sophisticated humor magazine dealing exclusively with religious matters. And The Door's clout has been multiplied through the broader mass media, which loves to reprint and report on its irreverent send-ups.
Most Christian journalism is "more like public relations," says Mike Yaconelli, one of The Door's founders. But his magazine was started to push the envelope. Its name harkens to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses and kicked off the Protestant Reformation.
"We were the first for a lot of things in Christian journalism," says Yaconelli, who serves as the magazine's senior editor. "The first to use humor as a kind of weapon, and the first to do adversarial interviews where we confronted people and asked them questions they didn't want to answer."
Starting the magazine was an act of rebellion by Yaconelli and his original partner, a backlash against problems they saw in the organized church. The idea, he says, was not to challenge spirituality itself, but the obscene and bizarre ways in which some chose to pursue it.
"We were sort of angry, cynical young men who were basically fueled by passion," he says.
Since then, The Door has gone on to spare few targets, and frequently offends large blocs of readers en masse. It has, for instance, named Jim Bakker paramour and Playboy foldout Jessica Hahn and the A Team's Mr. T as Theologians of the Year. It runs a regular page reprinting advertisements for the most audacious products marketed in God's name. (One example: the Cross Knife Necklace, a crucifix with a built-in knife blade that is both "inspirational" and "useful," according to its maker.)
The magazine drew the ire of the American Express Company (and got publicity around the world) several years ago when it ran a mock photo of the Pope holding up a credit card and saying, "American Express: Don't Leave Rome Without It." Under threat of lawsuit, Yaconelli says, The Door printed an apology.
"If we don't lose a few readers every issue, we're doing something wrong," says Bob Darden, the current editor of the magazine.
As the magazine grew, Yaconelli himself has gone on to some success. His California company, Youth Specialties, now makes real money selling literature and training programs to religious youth counselors around the world.
Eight years ago, the heart and soul of The Door moved from California to Waco, staunch Baptist turf, which is sometimes referred to as Jerusalem on the Brazos.
Waco author and Baptist deacon Darden took over as editor of the magazine in 1987. While Yaconelli has continued to write columns and consult, Darden has largely shepherded the magazine.
Yaconelli's company has continued to subsidize The Door. The magazine has a paid circulation of about 10,000, but still costs his company between $30,000 and $50,000 a year to publish, Yaconelli says. The Door does not accept advertising, counting on subscription fees and subsidies from Youth Specialties to survive.
But now Yaconelli has decided it is time to pass the publication on. His company no longer wants to spend the money, and he is unsure if he still has the fire in the belly to keep The Door true to its mission.
"The company is ready to do other things and not willing to put money into it to keep it going," he says. After a quarter-century, his anger has ebbed, he says. He has mellowed, and is afraid the magazine may lose some of its satirical edge as a result.
Earlier this year, Yaconelli began negotiations to donate the magazine to the Trinity Foundation.
Ole Anthony, president of the foundation, jumped at the opportunity.
Although the Foundation is well-known for its work investigating televangelists, Anthony says, it sees bountiful opportunity in owning a satire magazine of The Door's reputation.
The foundation wants to expand the magazine, he says, and move it to a monthly publication schedule as soon as possible. Until now, he notes, The Door has focused mainly on Christianity, but he wants to see the magazine expand its mission and take aim at all things spiritual from New Agers to Eastern religions. "Anything that has to do with God stuff," he says.
Darden will stay on as editor, and most of the freelance writers who contribute to the magazine will still be used, Anthony says. Joining them, in an as yet undefined role, will be John Bloom, one of Dallas' best-known satirists.
Bloom will write for the magazine under his better-known persona, Joe Bob Briggs. (Joe Bob's weekly drive-in movie column is published in the Observer).
Bloom, who often takes aim at religious chicanery and hypocrisy in his drive-in column, says he has long been a fan of The Door and welcomes the chance to write for it. "The general public doesn't know what The Door is," Bloom says. "Those that have read it for years and years have always thought it is one of the funniest magazines out there."
Raising The Door's profile is one of the Trinity Foundation's aims.
The magazine has survived 25 years pretty much on word of mouth alone, Anthony notes. It has never been marketed, or made a big push to increase its circulation. The limited circulation, Yaconelli says, has left The Door vulnerable to circulation dips of a thousand or more readers in a fell swoop when it prints something particularly barbed.
"Everybody reads it, but nobody subscribes to it," Yaconelli says.
Anthony hopes to change that.
Advertising still will not be accepted, he says, but he hopes the magazine can be enlarged and published monthly, making it big enough to elbow its way onto newsstands across the country.
By printing Bloom's work--and using the extensive mailing list Bloom has built up marketing his Joe Bob character--Anthony hopes The Door can double or triple its circulation with relative ease. "There's no reason this shouldn't be up in the tens of thousands," he says.
Darden, who will stay on as editor under the new ownership, also is hoping The Door may finally be poised to step up to prominence. Allied with the Trinity Foundation, he says, The Door should be able to market and advertise itself for the first time, and hopefully build its readership.
There is, however, some unease about the compatibility between the no-holds-barred humor magazine and the aggressive, self-anointed watchdog Trinity Foundation. Under Anthony, the foundation's dogged pursuit of television evangelists has been known for anything but humor.
Yaconelli concedes that he has some concerns about giving up control of the magazine to the foundation, wondering if his creation might lose its independence and be subsumed by Trinity's agenda.
"I respect their kind of radical view of the church," he says. "[But] if they decide they want to go out and use the magazine to uncover and expose televangelists around the world, that would be a drastic mistake on their part."
Anthony swears that won't happen. The magazine's tone and viewpoint will stay largely unchanged, he says. Bloom says he is not fearful that The Door's unique voice will be overpowered by other pursuits of Anthony or the foundation.
"Everybody knows Ole can't tell a joke," Bloom says. "That's not his strong suit. But he appreciates humor, and he's always appreciated The Door, and likes the fact that it's iconoclastic."
Satire, Anthony says, is a natural avenue for Trinity, and he even envisions the magazine as a springboard to the creation of "Door TV," a satirical religious television show that could be sold for syndication.
There is seldom a lack of targets for religious humor, Anthony notes. All Trinity Foundation has to do is find those willing to pay for the experience.
Owning a satire magazine, Anthony notes, also provides the foundation with some legal cover. After drawing lawsuits for its investigations into religious fraud, he says, the foundation believes it can use a satirical outlet for some of its views with less risk of being sued.
Darden, the editor, says the aggressive, gutsy style of the Trinity Foundation is compatible with The Door. "It seems like it dovetails perfectly," he says.
That's not to say, though, that The Door is above biting the hand that feeds it. Should the Trinity Foundation itself do anything that begs satire, Darden says he won't hesitate.
"This doesn't mean that I'm not going to stick it to the Trinity Foundation every now and then," Darden says. "So Ole better watch his backside.
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